This week’s theme for #UpbeatAuthors is one simple way to improve your health today. I can boil this down to one word — awareness.

So what do I mean by that? Allow me to tell you a story about myself. Back in February, I had a surge in my anxiety level, and I wasn’t really sure why. I figured, most likely accurately, that it was a combination of factors — hormonal changes, not eating the right things, getting a bit older, needing to lose weight, and, honestly, the depressing state of discourse in the country. I knew I had to make some changes. I had to be aware of the things that were affecting me in a negative way and do something about them.

First, the weight. I knew already how to attack this issue because I’d done it before. I began tracking my calories again in a food journal and as I read more about anxiety and ways to help alleviate it, I also cut out caffeine. Now, on the rare occasion when I have a Coke, it’s the caffeine-free variety. Not diet, however, because I hate how artificial sweeteners taste and it’s my personal, I’m-not-a-medical-professional opinion that those artificial sweeteners are more dangerous to our bodies than sugar if the sugar is only an occasional indulgence and you don’t have a medical condition like diabetes. But I almost exclusively drink water. I also cut out most sweets and exercise portion control on the few occasions I indulge. I eliminated deep-fried foods. Well, honestly, I’d cut out almost all of them already, with the exception of French fries, but then those went bye-bye, too. They’re not remotely healthy and cutting fried foods from my diet had the extra benefit of alleviating some of my digestion problems and discomfort. And when I tried to eat some fries while out of town at a recent conference, I didn’t particularly enjoy most of them and with one exception didn’t even eat half of them. So now I don’t think I’ll even crave fries, which is sort of a miracle. But I like feeling better more than I like to eat fries.

Some years ago I read the book Food Rules by Michael Pollan. One of his rules that really stuck with me was to do the vast majority of your grocery shopping around the outer edges of the store and try to avoid the aisles. Why? Think about it. The outer edges are where the fresh produce, meats, seafood and dairy products are. In the middle is where the processed “foods” that are packed with sugar, salt and preservatives are. Another of Pollan’s rules was to eat real food, and much of what is in the middle of the store isn’t real food in that it can’t be found in nature. It’s made in some company’s chemistry lab. There’s a reason we are seeing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It’s at least in large part due to what we’re eating.

Both of my parents died of heart attacks, and my dad also had a stroke at the age of 51, a mere four years older than I am now. I want to do whatever I can to prevent myself from following in their footsteps. So I’m eating more real food, avoiding processed foods (having just given up things like deli meats and canned soups, which are full of sodium). I’ve joked that I’m becoming the Queen of Salads, but I know myself and salad all the time will become old really quickly. So I’m mixing in veggies, fruits, the white meat portion of those yummy rotisserie chickens (sans skin). I’m beginning to investigate other things to eat because I’m not a natural cook. I don’t enjoy spending time in the kitchen like some people. I really wish I did. It does help that due to diabetes, my husband tries to stick to low-carb most of the time. But I’m looking for tasty, healthy, easy recipes that don’t have a lot of salt or sugar. If anyone has any suggestions for sources or awesome Pinterest boards with these types of recipes, let me know.

I am happy to report that as of this past Saturday, I passed the 20 pounds lost mark since February. I’m about halfway to my weight-loss goal. And now only am I feeling better, but it was gratifying that people noticed, not gonna lie. It was also a wonderful feeling that while preparing to go to the RWA Conference, I didn’t experience the depressing trek to the clothing stores to buy bigger clothes. Instead, I was able to “shop” the back of my closet where I’d stowed some of my favorite conference clothes that were in a smaller size.

Also in the realm of awareness, I’m aware of the fact that I have a tendency to go all-in or cold turkey, so I’m making myself read differing views on various health topics. For instance, I had a higher than normal blood pressure reading when I went for my first visit to the hormone doc last week. Of course, being me, my anxiety shot up. At least it did until I did several things:

1. Made myself make some adjustments to what I’m eating (eschewing processed foods like deli ham and turkey as well as canned soups)

2. Read that taking too much sodium out of one’s diet (depending on one’s health condition and doctor’s recommendations) can actually cause harm, so I didn’t need to overdo it

3. Pulled out my blood pressure cuff and started taking my own readings twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening. They were significant lower than what I got at the doctor’s office, and I read that there is something called White Coat Hypertension that makes a person’s BP elevated when it’s taken in a doctor’s office. Also, the chart included with my cuff shows that the time of day I was at the office is typically when a person’s BP is highest during the day. Other factors such as having not eaten as healthy the previous week because I was away from home, some anxiety about this initial visit, and being a bit sick with a sinus mess could have affected the number as well. I will, however, take in my cuff and have it checked for accuracy the next time I have an appointment. I’ll also exercise daily and watch what I eat with an eye to improving overall health.

So, back to that anxiety I began experiencing in February and which came to an ugly peak in early June when I had a massive panic attack while traveling alone. I knew I wanted to avoid medication for anxiety and its potential negative side effects if at all possible. I’m more of a fan of a more natural, holistic approach when that works. I’m not opposed to taking meds when I need to (I take allergy and asthma meds every day, for instance), but I don’t want that to be my first choice if there are more natural ways of fixing the issue. From my reading, I discovered that often anxiety can be a result of something physical going on in your body. I did a lot of reading about perimenopause and its symptoms. I was experiencing a lot of the things associated with that stage in a woman’s life — hot flashes, anxiety, panic attacks, fatigue, dizziness, etc. So on the advice of a friend, I ordered some lab tests that I could administer at home and send to the lab. Turns out my progesterone was super low. But I’d also read about how hormone replacement therapy can up a woman’s risk for things like breast cancer, which scares the living daylights out of me. So I read about bio-identicals and am going that route. I’m hoping after a while my symptoms will go away.

But I’m not depending solely on progesterone cream and supplements. I’m doing other things to attack my anxiety head-on. I’ve started seeing a therapist to do cognitive behavioral therapy, partly in the hope of overcoming my fear of flying and making travel long distances easier. I’m exercising and just started yoga. I am using the free Yoga with Adrienne videos on YouTube that someone suggested in the wake of my panic attacks. I’m doing deep-breathing and relaxation exercises, including during the 10 minutes before I take my own BP readings. I read a lot about anxiety and how to deal with it. Even my therapist quickly identified that I’m the type of person that if there’s a problem, I want to learn about what causes it and how to alleviate it. Now, I can’t sit here and say I’m cured of anxiety because I’m not. When I have an ache or a random pain or a dizzy spell, things that a normal person might ignore, I experience a surge of anxiety that it’s something horrible happening to me.

I suspect this fear has built inside me because of the passings of not only my parents but also my mother-in-law when she was in her 50s. She was outwardly a healthy person but was diagnosed with stage-four cancer before she knew she was even sick and passed away five months later. I think that fear of something being wrong and not knowing until it’s too late has buried itself deep in my brain. But now I’m aware that these fears are most likely not rational; yes, it can happen, but I can’t live with that constant fear hanging over me. And while it might take a bit for my awareness to filter through to the non-rational part of my brain that fears imminent demise, I’m getting a bit better at being able to say to myself, “It’s just anxiety. It’s not real. Just ride it out.” I wish I could snap my fingers and banish my anxiety forever, but that’s just not how this works.

So back to the topic of this post and the theme of the week — one simple way to improve your health today. Be aware of what your body is telling you and take the appropriate action. Oh, and stop eating processed and fast foods. Eat real, fresh food as much as you can. Your body will thank you.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

This week’s topic for #upbeatauthors is about fostering creativity. While what I’m going to talk about below focuses on writing, the piece of advice I’m sharing can apply to any creative endeavors – crafts, music, art, sewing, costuming/cosplay, basically whatever creative outlet refills your soul and/or is how you make your living.

It’s a simple piece of advice, really, but one we might overlook because we tend to find the thing we do well and stick with it. But what if we’ve done that thing so much that we begin to burn out or run out of ideas or lose the joy in doing it? Been there and done that. This is when we step outside of the box we’ve either put ourselves in or found ourselves in due to contractual obligations. If you find yourself in this situation, do something totally different.

Do you write sweet romance? Try a dark suspense. Do you write long, lush historical? Try a romantic comedy novella. Feel like you’re stuck in a rut with your quirky cozy mystery series? Try your hand at a piece of micro fiction set in some part of the past.

Sometimes writing something completely different in tone, content or length is just the kick in the pants you might need. You might instinctually make different word choices, sentence lengths, character traits and plot progressions because this is just an experiment and that knowledge frees you up to play. You can think of the experience as a palate cleanser or a jump-start to your creativity, but you might be surprised by how much you like the experience.

A few years ago, I took a short break from my normal writing to take part in the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds project. They contracted with authors to write short pieces set in established worlds to the mutual benefit of the authors, Amazon and the world’s copyright holders. I wrote three pieces set in the world of The Vampire Diaries. I’d never written fan fiction before, so it was a totally new experience and a lot of fun. I always say that you don’t have to take every opportunity that comes your way, but it pays to at least be open to those opportunities. They might provide your creativity (and perhaps even your bank account) with unexpected benefits.

Have you ever done anything completely different from your norm to give your creativity a kick in the posterior? Is there something you’ve never tried that you’d like to? Why not work it into your schedule now?

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”  – Christopher Reeve

I came across that quote recently while I was working on a freelance magazine article about an equine riding therapy program. It really spoke to me, even more so when you think about all Reeve went through.

As I think back through my life, I can see the absolute truth in his quote. So many things followed that same progression – managing to pass trigonometry in high school, getting accepted into college (the first in my family to do so) and managing to pay for it, becoming a published author. There were nights when I was taking trigonometry that I would cry because I just couldn’t figure out my homework. It was doubly frustrating because I was a good student and I was depending on my grades to get into and pay for college. Trig just wasn’t how my brain was wired. With help from my best friend and my patient and understanding teacher, I managed to pass, albeit with the only C I ever got. And I was actually grateful to get that C.

My path to getting my first book published was a long one, also filled with tears and frustration every time I got a rejection letter. It took me 11 years of working my way through the impossible and improbable stages to get to the inevitable one. Despite all the rejection, at some point I decided that I wasn’t going to have put all that effort into something only to quit or fail at it. Call it determination. Call it stubbornness. I figured the longer I worked at it, the better my chances of selling. And eventually I did, though not before a lot of self-doubt had bombarded me.

Now I’m facing having to rethink my career. My line at Harlequin is closing next summer, which means my current contract is likely my last with them. I still have a lovely working relationship with my editor and senior editor and everyone I’ve come into contact with at Harlequin, but the numbers are not in my favor. There are probably 80-100 of us who are in the same or similar boat. There simply isn’t enough room to move us all into other lines that are continuing, so I’m thinking about other directions and what is best for me at this point in my life and career. I look at the really successful self-published authors and that’s what I want to aspire to, along with getting a new publisher for my young adult novels, which don’t do particularly well in the realm of self-publishing like other genres such as romance do.

So I have a bit of the impossible (“I’m too late to the game” and “It’s so hard to break out in a crowded marketplace”) and improbable (“It’s not realistic to think I can make five figures a month”) going on in my head, but I’m trying to believe in the inevitability that I will become a bestseller and not only replace my Harlequin income but surpass it. I’m doing lots of reading about positive steps such as mastermind groups and setting goals, the latest market news and promotional strategies, keeping up my daily story idea journal that I blogged about here. While I’m attending the Romance Writers of America National Conference this week, I’m going to soak up all the useful information I can and come back to plot out further strategies for getting to that inevitable stage. After months of not being excited about writing, I can feel the stirrings of excitement again and that, in itself, is exciting.

Being part of this new #upbeatauthors group is definitely helping me to keep my mind pointed in positive directions instead of negative ones. I’m hopeful that all the positive messages that are being shared by the group are helping all of you as well.

Since I’m a lover of quotes, share your favorite quote about being positive. I’ll give away a signed copy of one of my backlist titles to one commenter.

Today is launch day for a new happiness and creativity effort called Upbeat Authors, the idea for which came to me as I was reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. To put more positive messages out into a world that seems too often to have nothing but bad news and messages of anger, hatred and negativity, I posted on Facebook that I wanted to form a group of authors who would post weekly messages of happiness and positivity. It was obvious within minutes that this was an idea that many fellow authors liked and needed. Our number grew to more than 225 in only two to three days.

I came to read Rubin’s book when it was suggested to me in the aftermath of a large and scary panic attack I had in early June and the subsequent anxiety I’ve been wading my way through. As I searched for physical reasons for my body acting the way it was (it appears it may be at least partially due to a hormone deficiency), the experience made me want to reexamine my life and search for ways to make it happier, more fulfilling and rewarding. Not that I don’t have a happy life. I just think sometimes we can all benefit from slowing down and taking stock of how we’re doing things and see if there are better, more pleasing ways. I had already begun to try to stay away from negative messages that seem to come from all directions these days – social media, news, things you hear in the line at the grocery store. It’s hard sometimes, partially because my old journalist tendencies like to stay informed. It’s a delicate balance. I read books about making physical changes such as eating and exercising to improve health, the various viewpoints on anxiety and how it comes to torment so many people, and positive ways I can make changes regarding my career. It was Rubin’s book, though, that gave me the idea of how even very small changes, often in just how we look at things, can make a big difference.

That realization was the idea behind the theme of our first week of Upbeat Authors, which will be identified by the hashtag #upbeatauthors on social media. Each week we’ll have a different theme designed to help support and inspire fellow authors, our readers and anyone who could use a bit of positivity, a fresh and happy outlook on life and how to live it. This week’s theme is simple pleasures. Each author will be sharing graphics, social media updates, blogs, etc., on this topic and what it means to them. My choice was the peace that can be found by getting out in nature to take a simple walk away from all the electronic devices and the attention they capture in our daily lives. One of my favorite scents is that of a forest after a rain. Then there’s the salty scent of the ocean to be found as I walk along the beach. The sound of the waves is soothing as is the sound of running water over rocks in a creek. This communing with nature always brings a sense of relaxation and stress relief. It’s easier to smile, easier to breathe.

But it’s not only a simple pleasure that costs nothing. Studies have shown that getting out into natural spaces provides physical and mental health benefits. In addition to the physical activity, according to one study referenced in this article from the New York Times, walks in even a “leafy, quiet, park-like portion” of the Stanford University campus led to a decrease in participants’ tendency to brood, or to think about the negative aspects of their lives.

In Scotland, woodland programs are being used to good effect for patients with long-term mental health issues. 

In Japan, heading to the forest for health benefits is known as shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. According to some studies, it reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases your immune system defenses.

While I have no doubt there is a scientific explanation for the benefits of spending time in nature, I think at least part of the reason we feel good when we do is because of our historic ties to nature. We once lived much closer to it. We didn’t have to make the effort to spend time outside in the green, breathing fresh air and enjoying the quiet only interrupted by birdsong and the wind in the trees. But while the modern world has conveniences, for sure, we have also perhaps lost a peace of mind and natural stress relief we once had without even thinking about it. It seems perhaps that Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson agreed.

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit. —Robert Louis Stevenson

So if you’re stressed, anxious, depressed or just need a break from the modern world, I encourage you to indulge in the simple pleasure of getting back to nature for a while. Soak it in and let all the bad stuff flow out.

And I hope you’ll look for the #upbeatauthors posts across all platforms today and each Monday. We hope they brighten your day, and we’d love for you to share them with others. The more people we can reach with messages of happiness and positivity, the better.