Good Friends: The Key to Good Health

Friends are good for all kinds of things -- a girls' night out, late-night chats and shopping trips, to name a few. But did you know they're also good for your health? A study published in The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied showed a strong link between supportive social networks and healthy behaviors like eating well and exercising.  

Friendships are particularly important to women, says Irene S. Levine, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend."Female friendships are extremely vital to a woman's well-being, because women help each other unload emotions, which is a real stress buster," says Levine.

Whether you're already surrounded by friends or you're looking to build better relationships, Levine offers these tips for nurturing your female friendships -- and your health:

1. Make friendship a priority.
Most women are so busy that it may feel self-indulgent to spend time on friendships. But it's important to make friends a priority in your life, says Levine."Know that [friendships] will ultimately make you a better mother, wife, daughter and person, because friendships make you feel more fulfilled," she says.

2. Be there.
While technologies like email and Facebook have made keeping in touch with friends easier, there's just no substitute for face time."Be there for your friend in the way you would want her to be there for you," says Levine. If your friend's nervous about going in for a mammogram, for instance, offer to go with her. Or if she needs a dress for an important occasion, take her shopping.

3. Celebrate together.
Remember the special events in each others' lives, whether it's a birthday, an important anniversary, a new job or a promotion."It makes for a more special relationship when you can celebrate each other's important events and successes," advises Levine.

4. Communicate.
When something's wrong, talk about it. Levine suggests you open the door for conversation and avoid pretending nothing's wrong. Just like in a good marriage, friends need to keep the lines of communication open. Let her know that you're there to talk whenever she needs you.

5. Develop rituals.
Patterns and regularity can help create a rich friendship, says Levine. Make your relationships stick by developing rituals that create lasting memories, like a regular girls' night out (or in!), a girlfriends' getaway, a lunch every Friday or a drink every Thursday night. Put it on your calendar -- and keep that time sacred.

6. Forgive and forget.
Every relationship requires give and take. You're two different people, and your friend may not always think the way you do or say the right thing. Recognizing that no one is perfect and being willing and able to apologize when you make a mistake is crucial."Apologize sooner rather than later so bad feelings don't have a chance to build up," says Levine."And don't keep score: The best friendships are those where people truly want to give and take in an unconditional way." 

7. What if you have trouble making friends?
If you're shy or introverted, you might have a hard time finding good friends. Start by engaging in activities you enjoy, suggests Levine. Join a gym or a book club, or volunteer for a community service group."Put yourself in a place where you'll see the same people over and over," says Levine."Show openness with simple things like smiling and showing interest in the other person. Just don't be too aggressive or reveal or ask for too much information too soon: Relationships need time to grow."

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Mom's Best Backup Plan

Ten years ago, Kristine Breese found herself in a situation that turned out to be a wake-up call in more ways than one. At the age of 35, the mother of two went into cardiac arrest at her home in Carlsbad, Calif. And in that moment, Breese's first thought was not what you would expect."I thought ‘Who's going to give the kids dinner?’" she says. She was even thinking about the mac 'n' cheese dinners in the freezer as the paramedics wheeled her to the ambulance. 

Thankfully, Breese survived her ordeal, regained her health and today she is a successful writer and public speaker. But one thing she'll never forget is the fact that every mom needs a reliable backup plan to cover those unexpected moments when mom is not available. 

Whether it's a result of a surgery, as it was for Breese, or something more common such as a cold or flu, if you need time to rest and recover, make sure your backup plan is in place ahead of time. Check out these strategies and be prepared.

1. Learn to ask for help.
Some moms understandably have trouble asking for help."Moms push it to the limit," says Breese, author of Cereal for Dinner: Strategies, Shortcuts, and Sanity for Moms Battling Illness."When women start feeling bad, they don't cut down on their activities or turn to others. Things can quickly spiral out of control."  Develop the skill of asking for help before you're in a crisis. For example, when someone offers to carry your groceries to the car, let them."You may feel silly at first. We're in that post-feminist generation where we're not supposed to let someone open the door for us, but asking for help doesn't have to be a statement about who you are as a woman," says Breese.

2. Set up a network of helpers.
You need to have a list of people to call when you need assistance. Set up a way to contact everyone quickly and easily. For instance, create an email list or Facebook group specifically for this purpose. Or set up a telephone tree where you call the first person on the list, they call the next person and so on. Think of it as your own personal "Emergency Response System." Then all you have to do is send one message or make one call to say, "Can you help me out and pick up my kids from school this afternoon? I have been flat on my back all day."

3. Ask for specific kinds of help.
Designate people to do specific tasks. For instance, ask a neighbor in advance if she'd be OK to cover carpool duties if you're in a pinch. Ask a girlfriend if she'd be willing to buy some groceries if you just can't manage a trip to the market. You can even get the kids involved, in an age-appropriate way."Kids really respond when they can help," says Breese, who suggests making a game of it when you need help from younger kids. For instance, give them a "Do Not Disturb" sign to hang on your bedroom door or have them set a timer so they know how long mommy needs to rest.

4. Have a replacement on call.
You need several reliable baby sitters to call on. If you don't have any, try finding someone through a baby-sitting agency such as the Web site Sittercity, or a local church or college. Interview candidates and check references before you need them. Ideally, your baby sitters are familiar with your family and your home, and they have flexible schedules so they're likely to be available in an emergency. If your budget allows, set aside some cash and contacts for extra conveniences like a cleaning service or takeout meals when you really are down for the count.

5. Leave a paper trail.
Before you get sick, pretend you're going on vacation and write down everything a caregiver would need to know while you're away. Include essential phone numbers, information about kids' activities and schedules, medications, allergies, and other relevant details. Ideally, your regular baby sitters already know the drill, but it's good to have written instructions for reference. Keep this information in one place (try the fridge or the kitchen table), and be sure to update it often.

6. Stock your freezer.
While you're healthy, find some freezer-friendly recipes. Double them each time you cook, and freeze half. Or keep some commercially prepared meals on hand that a caregiver could easily pop in the oven or microwave.

7. Have confidence in your family.
Realize that things won't fall apart just because you're not directing the scenes. Sure, dad may not cut the crust off the bread when he packs lunches, and he may send Susie to school without brushing her hair. What's important is that he's getting the kids to school. If you make home-cooked meals but grandma takes the kids out for chicken nuggets, no permanent damage done. It's OK if your kids watch a bit (or even a lot) more TV while you're ill. Just remember the overarching goal: Giving mom a break so you can rest and rejuvenate.

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Simple Steps to Happiness

With the holidays done and spring months away, it can feel like there’s not much to smile about these days. But shaking off those winter blues may be as easy as making a few simple changes in your daily routine. To help you start smiling, we combed through the latest scientific research -- and came up with five research-backed moves to boost your mood. C’mon, get happy!

1. Step into the sun.
When it’s chilly out, spending time outside may be the last thing you want to do. But soaking up the sun’s rays can have a big impact on your mood, reveals a study published in the journal Lancet. Researchers found that brains produce more of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin on sunny days.

To ramp up your mental wellness, open your shades first thing in the morning. Bundle up and head on short walks outside or, on frigid days, find the sunniest spot in your home or office.

2. Snack on fruits and veggies.
On any given day, most of us only get three servings of produce. Not only can bumping up your intake reduce your risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and obesity, but it may also improve your mood. The more produce you eat, the happier you are -- with seven servings being the ideal amount, according to a study of 80,000 people published in the journal Social Indicators Research.

To sneak more servings into your day, incorporate fruit into your snacks. Have an apple or pear with cheese or nut butter; baby carrots or cucumber slices with hummus; or berries with low-fat yogurt. Or slip some veggies into your main dishes: Your family won’t even notice spinach blended into smoothies; cauliflower puree added to mashed potatoes or mac n’ cheese; or diced carrots, mushrooms and squash mixed into spaghetti sauce.

3. Decorate with greenery.
These days, the view from your window may be gray skies and barren trees. To brighten up your space -- and your outlook -- place a few pots with ferns, flowers or succulents on your windowsill. Researchers from the University College London found that greenery can ease stress and lift a mood, and a separate Harvard study revealed that seeing flowers in the morning bring on happier days.

Have a brown thumb? Tack up a picture of your favorite outdoor scene at your desk. The British researchers showed that simply gazing at greenery could have a mood-improving benefit.

4. Break a sweat.
It’s no secret that exercise makes you feel better. But ramping up your workout may have bigger rewards for your mental wellness. According to a study from England’s Manchester Metropolitan University, people who did vigorous workouts experienced a bigger mood improvement than those who did a moderate one -- and both were happier than their couch potato counterparts.

No gym? Try our sweat-worthy at-home workout. You’ll be grinning after just 15 minutes.

5. Consider a light box.
If you can’t shake your sluggish mood, you may want to consider a light box. These devices are specifically designed to mimic the sun’s bright rays. They can be bought over-the-counter or with a doctor’s prescription; it’s generally recommended to switch on the box for at least half an hour every morning.

Remember: If you’re experiencing a severe and/or persistent case of the blues, always consult your health care provider.

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Finding Hidden Moments for Me-time

When your day is devoted to taking care of your kids, your husband, your job and the many other important things on your agenda, it can seem impossible to schedule time for yourself. But setting aside your own time is key to maintaining your physical and mental health, says Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say it and Mean it, and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.

Here are six expert ways to find hidden moments in your day and how to spend them so you feel energized and invigorated.

1. Find the time. For one day, keep a log of all your activities to see how much spare time you actually do have. Then, schedule time for yourself and stick to it. “Create an appointment with yourself and hold it every bit as sacred as an event for one of your kids, or an important work meeting,” says Dave Kashen, a San Francisco-based personal and executive coach.

2. Write it down. Carry a small notebook or an electronic device that you can use to jot down what you have to do as it comes to mind, says Newman. Recording tasks in real time allows you to see the difference between what’s really important and what can be postponed. The time you would have spent on nonessential to-do’s can then be applied to you.

3. Be grateful. Keep a gratitude journal in which you write down a few things each day that you are grateful for, says Kashen. You can even write a thank you note to yourself, reminding yourself of the contributions that you make to your family.

4. Manage your energy. Throughout your day, think about managing energy. Make a list of the things that give you energy and the things that zap your energy, says Kashen. Try to shift your day so you do more of the tasks that energize you. When you're feeling depleted of energy, incorporate an energizing task into your schedule.

5. Work it out. Bursts of movement are a great way to focus on your well-being, says Newman. “While you are waiting in the car or somewhere else, do ankle flexing, or neck exercises and arm rotations,” she says. Or try to incorporate movement into your daily routine. “You can do deep knee bends while you brush your teeth,” adds Newman.

6. Think about it. Meditation is a great way to recharge your energy and can be done almost anywhere and anytime you find yourself on pause. “Close your eyes and think about lying on a beach or being in your favorite place,” says Kashen. “Whether or not you are into meditating, a few minutes of downtime can be energizing.”

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Why We Cry

Ever wonder why we cry? Simply stated, we cry as a reaction to being happy or sad, but we all know it’s much more complicated than that. In fact, the question has been a topic of debate that’s perplexed philosophers as far back as the time of Aristotle, who believed that crying cleanses the mind of suppressed emotions.

There’s a huge spectrum of emotion that drives us to tears, and it’s a fickle business. We cry from frustration, elation, rage, sadness, loss and laughter, to name a few. There are moments in sappy movies or commercials designed to make us tear up and reach for the box of tissues.

And then there are moments that catch us off guard, like beholding something of great beauty, or witnessing a kindness amongst strangers.

Some people never cry, even during times of great loss; others can produce tears on command, like a party trick.

Why We Cry: A Method of Expression

Whatever the emotion behind it is, we cry as a way of expressing our feelings in lieu of words. Sometimes a person cries because he or she isn’t able to express what they are feeling, and sometimes it’s because words simply aren’t enough. How much, how often and why we cry varies by age, gender, personality and culture.

According to one German study, men cry, on average, six to 17 times a year compared to women’s 30 to 64 times. The sexes were also more apt to shed tears for different reasons: Men tend to cry over breakups or over empathy, while women weep in response to feelings of inadequacy, tough situations or remembering sentimental past events.

Why We Cry: An Emotional Release

Regardless of the reason, it’s healthy -- and common -- to cry; doing so can be an effective emotional tool. That’s because we get a sense of release when we cry. When emotions are running high, tears work to diffuse our feelings and give us an instant, natural way of coping. The act of crying leaves us feeling a little lighter -- more unburdened and resilient. While researchers still debate the benefits of crying, several studies, including a recent large international study of more than 5,000 people in 30 countries published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, have shown that both men and women felt better after a good cry.

So there’s no need to feel embarrassed when your emotions occasionally drive you to tears. Just grab a tissue and embrace a good cry, using it as a healthy tool to deal with your emotions -- both good and bad.

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