My Experience as a Peace Corps Health Extension Worker – Part 2

After I became acclimated, it was time to get to work.

Each volunteer was tasked with collecting data, facilitating several group discussions, and writing a Village Analysis Report. The main reason volunteers were asked to do this was to see how we could be of assistance within the community; and what resources and skills were readily available.

Before executing the tasks, I had to find someone to help me; someone who could gather people and translate my version of Kiswahili. I asked Dada Agnes (Sister Agnes), a primary school teacher who spoke English. Because Dada Agnes was busy with her school schedule, she recommended that I work with Mama Gonsalva.

Mama Gonsalva was a Community Health Worker, and with the help of my homemade brownies, was able to gather several groups of people for our group meetings. I made the brownies and people showed up. We’d chat, laugh, and work until sun set. In undergrad, I learned about group facilitation and conducting assessments, but being able to put what I learned into practice was incredible. After several community meetings, I had enough information to write my report. Thanks to Dada Agnes, I was able to submit my report to the government of Songea.

While I had a great time executing the assessment, I quickly learned about the village hierarchy. Because my village contact kept putting the assignment on hold, I went around him and didn’t bring my concerns to the village chairman.  I avoid procrastinating and because of that sometimes I tend to jump the gun. After explaining to the chairman why I went around my contact, he said that he understood and accepted my apology.

Time to teach:

Not long after I completed the Village Analysis, and presented it to others in my Peace Corps class, I began teaching at two of the primary schools, the local clinic, and throughout the community.

For my first time teaching in the village, I went to the clinic and taught women about Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). The Mamas (the women in the class) looked on, some confused and others amused. Once Mama Gonsalva was able to help translate what I was saying, the Mamas laughed at me dancing as I shook the bottle with the solution, listened as I took them through the steps, and even asked questions. It was another moment cementing that I wanted to educate others for a living. Working at the clinic became a regular experience, and I was even able to assist with weighing babies and helping the doctor, nurse, or health workers with several tasks. My favorite part was connecting with the women and building friendships.

Because I enjoy staying busy, I also decided to teach at both primary schools. One of the great tools that Peace Corps provided was a handbook of lessons in Swahili and English. I was able to modify lessons based on age range and created games to help the children learn. I taught but I also learned from the children that I worked with.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it took time for me to adjust to my new surroundings. I would visit people’s homes, shops, and community hangouts to sit and speak with them about their healthcare concerns. During a visit at one person’s home, I was offered water which had not been boiled or treated. I returned to the person’s home after teaching them about the importance of boiling water and how wadudu (germs/bugs) can enter the body and make them sick. She offered me water again, but told me that she started boiling her drinking water before use. A small accomplishment with a major impact.

I would also sit and speak with the vijana (youth) who were not in school; speaking with them about health topics and answering the questions they had. Because I was open and spent time with community members, they began to feel more comfortable around me and started visiting my home to ask questions, to sit and talk, and to read health materials.

I continued to teach, but one day after teaching a group of Mamas, I decided to create a Mama Lishe (Mama Nutrition) group. The formation of the group came about because of an event that took place. One day, when I was teaching a group of Mamas, my meeting was interrupted by a leader in the community. I was cut off as I was teaching and the Mamas were scolded and spoken down to like children. As he walked off, the Mamas were whispering and looked helpless.

During training, volunteers were taught how women in Tanzania are oppressed; and volunteers were encouraged to work on women empowerment projects. I remembered how my Mama during training would walk around the house quietly when Baba (father) was around, and how her personality would shine through, and laughter would fill the house, when he was at work. I wanted to experience that with the women of Nakahuga, so I turned to Dada Agnes for help.

Dada Agnes quickly got the Mamas together and the nutrition group, which was created for the Mamas to learn how to cook healthy meals based on their resources, was a success. The Mamas were also able to use the group as a means to openly communicate with each other.

An unexpected departure:

After months of becoming acclimated, something seemed off. About two months prior, Stacy was moved from Ruvuma to another village in a different region. I had no idea of the impact it would have on me. We were friends from the beginning and were excited that we would be living in the same region and could meet up in Songea to hangout and regroup. I connected with other volunteers in the region, but Stacy was my Peace Corps best friend.

My Peace Corps Buddy & Hero (She guided a tarantula the size of my palm out of my bedroom)

The work also began taking a toll on me. There was so much that needed to be done and I wanted to change the world. I would wake up early and stay up late at night. I’ve always been a hard worker, but because of all that I saw and experienced, my mind was on overdrive and I experienced chronic insomnia for the first time. My mental health began to suffer.

I tried pushing through feelings of isolation, sleep deprivation, low-self confidence, and loneliness, but I was shutting down. I reached out to the Peace Corps nurse who connected me to a psychologist. After speaking with the psychologist, I was told that I would be returning home for a brief period of time to recover; however, when I returned home, I was told that it would be best for me to stay home for my mental health. I was heartbroken. I felt like I let everyone down, especially myself.

Lessons learned:

In retrospect, there are many things I would have done differently. I would have practiced patience, taken mental health breaks, spent more time with other volunteers, and spread out my work over the full two years.

Although I was only a volunteer for 10 months, I always think back to my time in the Peace Corps and the lessons I learned. I learned lessons that have impacted my career and how I work, how I see myself, and how I interact with others. My time in the Peace Corps is an unforgettable experience that I will forever hold dear to my heart; and I am forever grateful for all of people I met, and the heartfelt and hilarious stories I am able to recall, all of which would take a series of several posts to cover, as a Peace Corps Health Extension Worker.

My Experience as a Peace Corps Health Extension Worker – Part 1

Ten years ago, I embarked on a journey that would change the course of my career. This is my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer Health Extension Worker.

The beginning:

This story would not be complete unless I explained why I joined the Peace Corps.

During my final year of undergrad, I decided that I wanted to work before attending graduate school. Because I originally wanted to become a child psychologist, I spoke with one of my professors about her career path and explained my career goals to her. After our meeting, she stated that I should consider a career in public health. I had no idea what public health even was.  Not only that, but another one of my professors suggested the same career field without knowing what the other said.

I knew that I had always been passionate about health, loved teaching, and wanted to serve others. Because I enjoyed volunteering, I went ahead and applied for the Peace Corps.

The application process was a little tedious, but with the help of my Peace Corps recruiter, I was able to finish the first step in becoming a volunteer.

Kwaheri Amerika (Goodbye America):

Not long after returning home from Ghana, I attended a Peace Corps event with my mother. At the end of the event, it was announced that I would be going to Tanzania. I previously learned about Tanzania and even knew people who lived there, so we were overjoyed. In July 2010, my family drove me to Pennsylvania where I would meet up with the other volunteers in my class. We said our goodbyes.

Now I’m not shy at all. However, I’m reserved, even around my family, unless I’m teaching. Meeting everyone was a little overwhelming, but I knew that I wasn’t the only volunteer who felt that way. It was a reminder that we were all in it together. The next day, we went to New York, had two layovers (in Switzerland and Kenya where there was a giraffe within close distance to the plane), and finally landed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Training was for three months and took place in Dar es Salaam at the Msimbazi Centre Hostel, and Tanga where volunteers spent most of our time. Training opened my eyes to how non-Tanzanian Blacks were viewed. I already knew how some people would view me because of things I’d heard from my friends. There were two other Black Americans in my class, but at times it became hard. After one training, I spoke with the Program Manager about my concerns. I asked him why some Tanzanians looked down upon Black Americans. He told me that it was because of the stereotypes seen on T.V. I told him how I felt, and he reassured me that the Peace Corps was working to recruit more African Americans and incorporate training that would benefit people from different racial backgrounds.

After we completed training at the Centre, volunteers traveled to Tanga where we each stayed with a host family. I quickly learned how to adapt to my new living conditions, and my time in Ghana mentally prepared me to expect the unexpected. The only thing I wished I would have expected, was the mouse that decided to get in bed with me…that’s a story for another day.

My host family consisted of two parents and three children. The oldest child stayed with a family member so that I could stay in his room. When I arrived, they stared at me with smiles on their faces. All of us looked at each other and I began showing them pictures of my family and friends. The only person in my host family that could speak English was my host father. There was a language barrier as he wasn’t fluent in English and I could barley put together a short sentence. However, I think the language barrier pushed me to learn as fast, and as much, as I could. Kiswahili is one of the most beautiful languages and was easy to pick up on once I learned greetings, nouns, adjectives, verbs, and how to structure sentences.

Karibu Nakahuga (Welcome to Nakahuga):

After three months of learning about Tanzania, the culture, the language, and different health topics that affect Tanzanians, volunteers graduated and were sent our separate ways.

During the drive from Dar es Salaam to Ruvuma, I quietly sat in the front seat of the SUV as the other volunteers were in the back chatting. Being on the continent of Africa felt like a grounding experience. I looked on excitedly as we passed animals at a watering whole. I thought about what my late grandmother would think of me living across the world. It was the moment where it hit me that I would be living alone in an entirely different country, and that it was my opportunity to do as much as I could do to serve others.

Each volunteer was dropped off at their new home. Now, before we entered the village I lived in, we encountered a large fire that was on both sides of the road. The driver stopped the car and an Associate Peace Corps Director, Pascal, jumped out of the SUV. We waited for a few minutes to make sure it was safe then we proceeded to Nakahuga.  

The drive was bumpy, and people stopped to see who the wageni (foreigners) entering their community were. When we got to my homestay, I was greeted by my village contact and the nurse whose home I was to live in. I said goodbye to Stacy, my Peace Corps best friend, and watched the SUV as they drove off.

The next day, I met almost the entire village. I don’t believe they expected their volunteer to look like me, but many of them eventually warmed up. It took a while for others to do so, and at times, I had to take a stance and respectfully voice my concerns when faced with opposition. I started attending events, showing up on community members doorsteps saying, “hodi hodi” (greeting when arriving at someone’s home), visiting schools, and hanging out in public spaces. Spending time with community members, asking questions and answering them, helped me to adapt to my new surroundings.

I experienced a range of emotions from the time I left my home state of Maryland to the moment it hit me that I was the only American in my village. Excitement, nervousness, frustration, and joy; a stillness and feeling of contentment. I was ready to make a difference and begin my job as a Health Extension Worker.

Organization Spotlight: Lifted Strong

Located off the beaten path, in the beautiful country of Tanzania, lies an organization that is supporting and uplifting the local women of Arusha. Lifted Strong was created by Eva Boaz and Joyce Beda to empower and educate women (Mamas) impacted by HIV/AIDS and life’s hardships.

What’s inspiring about the program?

 The joy that the Mamas of Lifted Strong have despite the adversities they’ve faced is inspiring. The stories I’ve heard about their lives before joining the program was heartbreaking. But no matter what, and no matter how they’ve felt, the Mamas were welcoming, loving, and hopeful about their future. I was humbled.

What makes the organization unique?

Me with the Mamas and other volunteers

Lifted Strong is unique in that it is not only an organization, but also a program with several purposes: providing health education to women based on their needs, equipping women with knowledge on how to develop a sustainable business, identifying skills that each participant has, connecting women to local resources that will help them succeed, and providing a safe place for women to share their stories and experiences to help others.

The organization even has a microloan program where Mamas learn how to write a business plan, pitch their idea, and receive funding if the group feels as if their business idea is marketable and sustainable.

What are some of Lifted Strong’s projects?

To help the organization generate income, two volunteers assisted the Mamas with developing a cooking class “Cook Like A Mama.”  For a small fee, volunteers can learn how to make three types of sambusas (samosas) and coconut soup. It’s a hands-on experience. The Mamas also teach participants inspirational songs in KiSwahili.

Me rolling dough for the sambusas

“Mama Kuku,” which translates to Mama Chicken, is their chicken project. Mamas learn how to care for chickens so that they can sell eggs and chickens for the organization and for their own personal income. The chickens also provide a source of protein for the Mamas, to prevent protein deficiency which can weaken the immune system, and their families.

The Mamas learning how to use a condom and Mama Jane looking surprised

As previously mentioned, Lifted Strong has a health education component, and teaches Mamas about health issues related to HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Stress Management, Exercise, Malaria, and more. After realizing that I didn’t want to teach one lesson and leave, I was given the opportunity to work with a nursing student, Stephanie, on developing and laying the foundation for Lifted Strong’s health education program.

Lastly, in partnership with Oyana International, the organization provides re-usable menstrual products for women and girls in the community; and provides community outreach and education.

My time at Lifted Strong is an experience I will never forget. To learn more about the Mamas, and the work that’s being done at Lifted Strong, please visit liftedstrongco.org.

First photo credit: Lifted Strong Website

Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

“Racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. are less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to use community mental health services, more likely to use the emergency room department, and more likely to receive lower quality of care.” – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, 2019

Note: Resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

In honor of Bebe Moore Campbell, a writer and mental health advocate, National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month was established in 2008 to bring awareness to the mental health barriers that minorities face in America.

What are the barriers?

  • Lack of insurance or being underinsured
  • Mental health stigma
  • Lack of adversity among providers
  • Language barriers
  • Distrust in the healthcare system
  • Inadequate support for mental health services
  • Misdiagnosis

Lack of insurance or being underinsured

African Americans and people of Hispanic origin are less likely to have insurance coverage compared to Whites; and a disruption in insurance, and a change in doctors, makes it less likely to develop a relationship with their doctor.2 This can make them less likely to seek mental health care.

Mental health stigma

There’s stigma in seeking mental health care because of race, culture, masculinity, religious beliefs, discrimination, and other factors. Many of these factors are ingrained in our society and who we are as a people.

Lack of adversity among providers

A lack of adversity is probably something that people don’t think about. However, it has been shown that if a doctor is of the same race as a patient, the patient is more likely to report higher levels of trust and satisfaction.3

Source: Association of American Medical Colleges, 2018

Language barriers

Language barriers also pose a significant issue. Being unable to communicate effectively because of language and/or culture, or being unable to comprehend health information due to medical terms, is also another factor that can put a person’s mental health at risk.4

Distrust in the healthcare system

The history of the American healthcare system is steeped in racism, sexism, and classism; and because of that history, some minorities may feel uneasy from seeking mental services.

Inadequate support for mental health services

Access to healthcare is one of the biggest issues some Americans are faced with. Inadequate access to mental health services make it harder for people to receive the mental health care that they need.

Source: Mental Health America, 2018  

Misdiagnosis

Minorities are more likely to be undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or under-diagnosed because of cultural, linguistic, or even historical reasons.5 A Rutgers University study found that African Americans were more likely to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia than their White counterparts.6         

This post by no means discredits what White Americans may experience regarding mental health. However, it was written to address the barriers and issues that minorities are faced with. For example, White Americans have higher rates of depression, and are more likely to die from suicide, than Black and Hispanics. However, depression in Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be persistent.6

Source: American Psychiatry Association, 2017

Visit the National Alliance on Mental Health for more information.

What is being done, and what can be done?

  • Training for healthcare professionals on cultural competency and the barriers that minorities are faced with
  • Providing resources specifically designed to address the needs of specific populations/cultures/races
  • Advocating to address the needs, concerns, and inequalities of various populations
  • Providing mental health resources in religious settings and common gathering places
  • Providing access to healthcare in rural communities
  • Educating individuals and families on the importance of seeking mental healthcare, and providing education to break stigma
  • Connecting individuals and families with healthcare professionals they can relate to
  • Connecting individuals and families with resources that are appropriate for them
  • Providing access to tools and resources to healthcare professionals, individuals, and families
  • Developing relationships between healthcare professionals and patients

Right now, we don’t have a perfect solution on how to combat the issue of inequalities in the healthcare system and the disparities that minorities face regarding mental health. There are systemic issues that we will have to continue to uncover and address for us to make progress in providing adequate mental healthcare for all.

Bebe Moore Campbell

A big thank you to Bebe Moore Campbell and all the mental health professionals and advocates who have and are shedding light on minority mental health issues.

Books on culture & race in the healthcare system:

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present by Harriet A. Washington

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Mental Health Resources:

 Mental Health America https://www.mhanational.org/bipoc-mental-health

Resources for Black and African American Communities https://mhanational.org/issues/black-and-african-american-communities-and-mental-health

Resources for Latinx/Hispanic Communities https://mhanational.org/issues/latinxhispanic-communities-and-mental-health

Resources for Asian American/Pacific Islander Communities https://mhanational.org/issues/asian-americanpacific-islander-communities-and-mental-health

Resources for Native and Indigenous Communities https://mhanational.org/issues/native-and-indigenous-communities-and-mental-health

Sources:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. (2020). Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Retrieved from https://www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/content.aspx?ID=9447

Sohn, H. (2017). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Insurance Coverage: Dynamics of Gaining and Losing Coverage over the Life-Course. Popul Res Policy Rev. 2017 Apr; 36(2): 181–201.

Rothman, P. (2016). Diversity in Medicine has Measurable Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/diversity-in-medicine-has-measurable-benefits#:~:text=Studies%20show%20that%20students%20trained,by%202.2%20minutes%2C%20on%20average.

Partida, Y. (2007). Language Barriers and the Patient Encounter. American Medical Association. Retrieved from https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/language-barriers-and-patient-encounter/2007-08

American Psychological Association. (2017). Disparities in Mental Health Status and Mental Health Care. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/advocacy/health-disparities/health-care-reform

Mental Health Today. (2019). Depression or schizophrenia? Black patients are more likely to be misdiagnosed. Retrieved from  https://www.mentalhealthtoday.co.uk/news/awareness/depression-or-schizophrenia-black-patients-more-likely-to-be-misdiagnosed#:~:text=Black%20patients%20more%20likely%20to%20be%20misdiagnosed&text=Researchers%20examined%20the%20medical%20records,with%20schizophrenia%20than%20white%20patients.

Men, Your Mental Health Matters

Life is hard and we often get consumed by everything that’s going on. Physically, we may look okay. We may walk around smiling pretending as if we are perfectly okay when we are not. When asked how we are doing, we may respond by simply saying, “fine,” when we are actually on the verge of mentally breaking into a million pieces.

There’s stigma connected to speaking about mental health issues as if they are separate from our physical health and wellbeing. There’s especially stigma when it comes to men’s mental health.

While mental health affects men and women, men are less likely to seek and receive mental health treatment. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even eating disorders impact men’s health.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Image by Pixabay from Pexels

Common symptoms of depression include:1

  • Anger, irritability, or aggressiveness
  • Feeling anxious or “on the edge”
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Loss of interest in work, family, or once-pleasurable activities
  • Not being able to concentrate or remember details
  • Overeating or not eating enough
  • Physical pain, aches, headaches, digestive problems
  • Engaging in risky activities
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Turning to alcohol or drugs
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts

Mental Health America has an online mental health screening tool and a list of resources based on your zip code. Remember that this is a tool and does not formally diagnose you. You must speak with a specialist for a diagnosis.

What should I do?

Image by Jopwell from Pexels

Seek Treatment

The first thing that you should do if you believe that you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, is seek help. Speak with your doctor and/or a mental health professional (counselor, psychologist, and/or psychiatrist).

Be open to treatment

There are several treatment options from therapy to medications. No matter what option(s) you choose, know that it may take time for you to adjust and/or feel like yourself again.

Speak with someone you trust

You should not have to suffer in silence. Speak with someone you trust about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. If you don’t have anyone in you’re life that you can speak with, there are options. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a readily available resource for you to turn to.

Find a healthy outlet

Alcohol, smoking, drugs, food…mental health conditions often trigger the need for us to numb our feelings. Instead of turning to substances that numb our feelings, it’s important that we not only get to the root of the issue, but also find a healthy outlet. Exercise, practice deep breathing, try to engage in activities that you enjoy, or try something new.

Image by Krisztina Papp from Pexels

Eat a healthy diet

Greasy and fatty food may temporarily fill that void and numb the pain, but they can also make you feel sluggish. Eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits, lean meat and fatty fish like salmon, will provide your body with nutrients that it needs as you try to fight through what you’re experiencing.

Set Goals

Start your day by setting some goals. Your goals can be as small as making your bed or taking a shower, or even going for a walk. Set goals to keep yourself busy and your mind occupied.2

No matter what issues you are facing, know that you can make it through. There is help for you and resources to meet you where you are. You are not alone.

Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889)

Veterans Crisis Line                                                                                                                       

Call 1-800-273-8255/Text 838255

Crisis Text Line                                                                                                                                 

Text “Hello” to 741741

Sources:

National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Men and Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/men-and-mental-health/index.shtml

Mayo Clinic. (2019). Male depression: Understanding the issues. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/male-depression/art-20046216

Mental Health America. (2020). Infographic: Mental Health for Men. Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/infographic-mental-health-men

Men’s Health Exams: What’s Right for You?

It’s important to schedule a yearly physical, but do you know what health exams are right for you? Your healthcare needs are based on factors including your family history, your current health, and your age. Below is a list of, and information on, common health screenings.

Source: Medline Plus, 2020

STD Screening

Being responsible for your health means knowing your status, regardless of your age. Get tested if you are sexually active. Check with your doctor, your local health department, or organizations like AIDS Healthcare Foundation for free or low-cost testing. Your insurance may cover HIV testing during your annual physical.

Colorectal Screening

A colorectal screening is preformed to detect colon cancer. Early detection can lead to early treatment if cancer is found.

Osteoporosis Screening

A bone density exam detects osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle. While many women get osteoporosis because of hormonal changes, men are also susceptible to the disease as they get older.

Image by Carolina Grabowska from Pexels

Prostate Cancer Screening

A prostate specific antigen (PSA) test measures the level of PSA in your blood. What is PSA? PSA is a substance made by the prostate, and having a high level of it in your system may indicate cancer or another issue with your prostate.

Testicular Screening

A lump on, or swelling of, the testicle is often the first sign of testicular cancer. Some doctors recommend self-screening where you look for any abnormalities (lump, swelling, or change in shape). Your doctor can screen you for this.

Lung Cancer Screening

If you have a history of heavy smoking, have quit within the past 15 years, and are 55 – 80 years old, you should be screened for lung cancer. Screening involves X-ray imaging.

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Screening

An abdominal aortic aneurysm screening detects if there is an enlargement in the lower part of your aorta. The aorta isn’t just a blood vessel in your heart. It runs down to your abdomen supplying your body with blood. Men ages 65 – 75 who are or were smokers should be examined once.

Speak with your doctor about your healthcare needs.

Sources:

Medline Plus. (2020). Health screenings for men ages 18 to 39. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007464.htm

Medline Plus. (2020). Health screenings for men ages 40 to 64. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007465.htm

Medline Plus. (2020). Health screenings for men over age 65. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007466.htm

Men’s Health Month

Image by August de Richelieu from Pexels

I am writing this post from a personal perspective. Yesterday was Father’s Day, and this month is Men’s Health Month. Yes men, there’s a month for you too.

My father embodies what it means to be a man of strength. Many consider him to be a “man’s, man.” He loves proving that he’s physically strong and always tries to find ways to show it. However, a few years ago, he kept quiet about what was going on with his very own health and his physical strength was on the decline. Knowing my father, it was because he didn’t want anyone, not even his wife and children, to view him as weak; although, we would never consider him so. On the outside he looked strong, but on the inside, his very heart was trying to kill him.

My father doing what he loves…spending time with nature

Though my father waited before visiting his doctor, he found the courage to speak up about how he was feeling, and even told my mother that he felt like something was “off” with his body. Since then, my father has recovered and has made his health, and speaking with his healthcare team, a priority. He gets routine exams, practices medication adherence, and finds ways to be physically active. He boasts whenever he gets a good report from the doctor and is now open to letting us know if he needs to rest.

Many of the health conditions that men are faced with are preventable. Even if you are reading this and you do have a health condition, there are ways for you to manage it. How?

Get Routine Health Exams

  • No matter your age, you should have a yearly physical exam. The physical exam is a chance for your doctor to check, and you to know, your blood pressure, A1C, cholesterol, and other health numbers. If you have a chronic health condition, like diabetes for example, make sure that you schedule regular appointments with your healthcare team. Scheduling your physical at the beginning of the year or near your birthday may help you remember to go.
  • Get a dental exam every six months. Your oral health is connected to your overall health.
  • See an eye doctor. It’s also important to make sure your eyes are healthy. If you are diabetic, you should have a dilated eye exam.
Image by Negative Space from Pexels

Speak with Your Doctor about Your Concerns

Your doctor is there to help you. Have a list of questions and concerns (medication side effects, issues sleeping, and even stress and anxiety) ready for your doctor. Get a second opinion if needed and look for another doctor if the one you have isn’t right for you.

Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes

You really do have the power to make healthier choices. You can do this by:

  • Eating a healthier diet; moderately eating your favorite foods
  • Creating an exercise plan and/or increasing your level of physical activity
  • Limiting your alcohol consumption
  • Quitting smoking
  • Practicing stress management
Image by Vlad Chetan from Pexels

Make Yourself a Priority

Like my father, you may put yourself on the back burner at times. It’s important that you begin to make yourself a priority.

  • Schedule time to do something you enjoy
  • Set aside a few minutes a day to breathe and gather your thoughts
  • Speak to someone you trust

Your physical strength shouldn’t define who you are as a man and being strong doesn’t mean being silent about what’s going on with your health. Make sure you regularly visit your doctor and also speak with them about ANY heath concerns you may have.

Tips and Tricks to Get More Sleep: Practicing Relaxation Techniques

Photograph by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques have numerous benefits, such as:

  • Lowering stress
  • Lowering blood pressure and heart rate
  • Serving as a temporary distraction
  • Helping relieve tension
  • Improving sleep
  • Allowing oxygen to flow throughout the body

My personal favorites include: 4-7-8, the body scan, guided meditation, and listening to nature sounds. Practicing relaxation techniques helped me manage major depression, anxiety, and even insomnia.

You can record yourself repeating the steps to the following exercises or find the audio versions online or on YouTube.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Photograph by Dids from Pexels

Belly Breathing

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

4-7-8

  1. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
  2. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  3. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  5. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  6. This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Breathe in, and tense the first muscle group (i.e., hands) for 4 to 10 seconds (hard but not to the point of pain or cramping).
  2. Breathe out, and suddenly and completely relax the muscle group (do not relax it gradually).
  3. Relax for 10 to 20 seconds before you work on the next muscle group. Notice the difference between how the muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed.
  4. When you are finished with all of the muscle groups, count backward from 5 to 1 to bring your focus back to the present.
Photograph by Kelvin Valerio from Pexels

Guided Imagery

  1. Get into a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes and relax.
  3. Begin to visualize a scene, memory, or story that you find calming. This is highly individual—find what works best for you by trying a few choices — a favorite vacation or calming outdoor spot, a relaxing activity or something repetitive like remembering the steps of an exercise or dance routine. The key is to find something that allows you to focus your attention and let go of other thoughts.
  4. Begin to create this scenario in your mind.
  5. Visualize all the details of the image or story, as slowly and carefully as you can.
  6. Any time you find your mind drifting to an unrelated thought (a worry about the day or a “must do” for tomorrow), acknowledge it and let it go.

The Body Scan is another relaxation exercise you can try.

As always, it is best to speak with a healthcare provider about your sleep habits or if you are experiencing any pain, trauma, or mental health condition. Also, you should practice relaxation techniques a few times to determine what works best for you.

Resources:

University of Michigan. (2019). Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation. Retrieved from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2255

Dr. Andrew Weil. (2016). Three Breathing Exercises and Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

Dartmouth University Wellness Center. (n.d.). Guided Audio Recordings. Retrieved from https://students.dartmouth.edu/wellness-center/wellness-mindfulness/mindfulness-meditation/guided-audio-recordings

Tips and Tricks to Get More Sleep: Practicing Sleep Hygiene

Photograph by Jcomp from Freepik

Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you wake up feeling exhausted? There are several reasons why 1 in 3 adults living in America are not getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep. 1,2 I, myself, have dealt with sleep issues on and off over the past few years. However, after dealing with chronic insomnia that lasted several months, I decided to speak with a counselor who taught me the benefits of practicing sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques.

Photograph by Drobotdean from Freepik

What is sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene involves putting habits and practices in place to help you sleep; from having a consistent bedtime to even getting enough exercise. It involves breaking old habits and creating new habits that will benefit your quality of sleep.

Why practice sleep hygiene?

Consistently put into practice, sleep hygiene can act as a signal to let your brain and body know that it is time for bed. It also involves practicing healthy habits during the day that will make it easier for you to fall asleep and even possibly stay asleep. Waking up feeling restored and refreshed is a goal that many want to achieve.

Here are a few tips and tricks to practice sleep hygiene:

  • Go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day
  • Develop a nighttime routine (i.e., take a warm bath, read a book, brush your teeth, etc.)
  • Avoid technology before bed (light from electronics can delay the release of melatonin)
  • Limit alcohol (alcohol may prevent you from getting restorative sleep)
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal (eating a heavy meal before bed can lead to indigestion)
  • Avoid drinking large amounts of liquid before bed
  • Avoid consuming caffeine in the afternoon (caffeine can stay in your system for up to 8 hours)
  • Create an exercise plan (avoid exercising less than 2 hours before bed)
  • Don’t stay awake in bed for more than 20 minutes
  • Use a sleep journal or App to track sleep
  • Keep a journal near your bed to write down thoughts
  • Create a comfortable sleeping environment (i.e., neat bedroom, soothing scents, warm lighting, blackout blinds, weighted blanket, white noise machine, etc.)
  • Turn the clock away from you
  • Practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Use guided imagery
  • Listen to relaxing music or nature sounds
  • Speak with a counselor (sleep deprivation may be due to an underlying mental health condition [i.e., depression or anxiety] or traumatic incident)
  • Speak with a doctor about medications (changing medications or reducing dosage may help)
Photography by Rawpixel from Freepik

Everyone is different and some routines work best for some people more than others, but it is up to you to learn ways that will help you get a better night’s rest. It also takes patience and practice as you are retraining the brain and creating new habits.

Although practicing sleep hygiene may help you sleep, please speak with a healthcare professional if you have trouble sleeping or think that you may have a sleep disorder.

Resources:

National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Sleep Diary. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/inline-files/SleepDiaryv6.pdf

National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Sleep Hygiene.  https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-hygiene

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/index.html

Hirshkowitz, M. & The National Sleep Foundation. (2015). Sleep Health. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Health

Sleep is just as important as diet and exercise; and a lack of it can lead to accidents, unintentional injuries, and errors. Sleep impacts our health and well-being.  Acquiring the recommended amount of sleep can help one prevent the development of chronic conditions, and those with a chronic condition may be able to better manage it with enough sleep. 1

The Sleep Cycle

The sleep cycle plays a specific role in disease prevention and management.  During stages 3 & 4 the body begins to heal and repair itself.  Blood pressure decreases, blood sugar becomes regulated, tissue is repaired, muscles are built, and the immune system is strengthened. Getting enough of stages 3 & 4 helps to restore your body making you wake up feeling well rested.

The Domino Effect

Sleep deprivation influences our weight, heart health, blood sugar, and mental health. Being sleep deprived can make it hard to manage chronic conditions and causes a domino effect that can lead to chronic conditions.

Obesity

A lack of sleep affects the hypothalamus which regulates appetite.  When sleep deprived, ghrelin (a hormone that induces hunger) is released in the body and leptin (a hormone that causes feelings of fullness) decreases. Sleep deprivation can also lead to an increase in endocannabinoids, which are substances produced by the body that make food pleasurable.

People who are sleep deprived eat twice as much fat and more than 300 additional calories compared to those who are not.2

Photograph by Steve Buisssinne from Pexels

Heart Health

As previously mentioned, during restorative sleep, your blood pressure decreases. A decrease in blood pressure puts less pressure on blood vessels. However, sleep deprivation causes blood pressure to remain high during long periods of time and can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.3,4

Diabetes

Since blood sugar is regulated during stages 3 & 4 of sleep, a lack of sleep may lead to a decrease in the amount of insulin (the hormone that removes glucose out of the blood) in the blood stream and increases the amount of cortisol in the body.  The chances of developing type 2 diabetes become greater with sleep deprivation.5

Photograph by Gern Altmann from Pixabay

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety can lead to sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation can lead to depression and anxiety.  Those who wake frequently during the night are more likely to have clinical depression.  Having a sleep disorder like insomnia and sleep apnea can also impact mental health. Those with insomnia are:

-10 times more likely to have clinical depression

-17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety

While those with sleep apnea are 5 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression.6

Practicing sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques may help you get some much-needed rest. Below is a list of resources that include information on sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques.

Make sure to speak with your healthcare provider if you have trouble sleeping.

Resources:

National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Sleep Hygiene. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-hygiene

University of Michigan. (2019). Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation. Retrieved from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2255

Dr. Andrew Weil. (2016). Three Breathing Exercises and Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

Dartmouth University Wellness Center. (n.d.). Guided Audio Recordings. Retrieved from https://students.dartmouth.edu/wellness-center/wellness-mindfulness/mindfulness-meditation/guided-audio-recordings

Sources:

Hirshkowitz, M. & The National Sleep Foundation. (2015). Sleep Health. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

National Sleep Foundation. (2019). Obesity and Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/obesity-and-sleep-0

American Heart Association. (2017). What is Cardiovascular Disease? Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Heart Disease Facts. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

National Sleep Foundation. (2019). The Link Between a Lack of Sleep and Type 2 Diabetes. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/link-between-lack-sleep-and-type-2-diabetes

National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). The Complex Relationship Between Sleep, Depression, & Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/excessive-sleepiness/health-impact/complex-relationship-between-sleep-depression-anxiety

National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). The Complex Relationship Between Sleep, Depression, & Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/excessive-sleepiness/health-impact/complex-relationship-between-sleep-depression-anxiety