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New UW program addresses work/life struggles like mine

We’re told to work hard and play hard in order to succeed. But earlier this year I almost learned the hard way that unbridled demands on my time and energy could have fatal consequences.

The beginning of 2015 was a tumultuous time for me. I was working as the director of a small nursing program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 125 miles from my home in Madison. I was responsible for getting the new program national accreditation and also teaching three courses. In fact, I taught almost all the nursing courses in the program.

At the same time, I was finishing my doctoral dissertation on the school nurse’s role in managing childhood obesity at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

In the moments that weren’t jammed with work, I helped manage my 94-year-old mother-in-law’s failing health. In January, she contracted the flu and had to be hospitalized. Shortly thereafter, she developed a urinary tract infection that left her profoundly confused and agitated. Every day, either her physician or her assisted living facility contacted me with some new concern.

There was no end to the stress. 

Weeks passed, but the pressures of my life did not ease. Every Monday I would leave for my teaching position, working 12-hour days on campus, then go to a hotel and work another four hours on my dissertation. 

Every Wednesday night I would return home and care for my mother-in-law and help manage household tasks.

Every night I would go to bed exhausted and listen to the pounding of my heart.

As a nurse practitioner, I realized I was on a dangerous path and needed to do something before my pounding heart ceased pounding. 

I made an appointment with a nurse practitioner and learned that I had dangerously high blood pressure, making me a likely candidate for a massive stroke. In addition to prescribing blood pressure medication, the NP suggested I enroll in a mindfulness-based stress reduction course. I did so at the end of April. 

The course was taught by practitioners who had studied with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well-known expert on mindfulness and meditation. The course met for two-and-a-half hours a week for eight weeks. 

We began each session with a word or words that would form the focus for the week: Beginner’s Mind, Non-Judging, Non-Striving, Letting Go, Trust, Breathe, Forgiveness, Patience, Acceptance. Then we would meditate for 20 minutes, discuss our experience and meditate again.

In addition, we were required to meditate for 45 minutes every day and record our thoughts, impressions and feelings. 

I remember walking into the classroom feeling tense and rigid. My breathing was shallow and rapid. I would walk out of the room relaxed, feeling expansive and as if I were floating. Our course culminated in a daylong meditation. In a room with 80 people nobody talked. There was simply silence.

My experience was, in a word, bliss.

‘Living well’

For those feeling over-extended, overworked and outright exhausted, a new series of courses offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison may help restore much-needed balance.

“Living Well — Today and Tomorrow,” offered by the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, is designed to restore health and happiness to life. The 16 courses, ranging from daylong sessions to six weekly meetings, will give lifelong learners the ability to better manage the rigors of everyday living, according to Lynn Tarnoff, the division’s outreach program manager and series director.

“There’s no manual for life, but these courses deal with problems all of us face,” Tarnoff says. “This is a unique offering from a major university and it addresses a real need in the community.” 

The courses begin on Oct. 2 with the daylong “Mindfulness: Your Door to the Present Moment” and conclude in May 2016 with “Caregiving: Care for Your Loved Ones, Care for Yourself,” a four-week course devoted to effectively caring for elderly relatives. The courses are offered on an individual basis and priced according to their length and content.

“We’re acknowledging a great need that we see in the community, where people need a hand in getting the information necessary to better manage life’s transitions,” Tarnoff says. “Our goal is to help you be the best person you can be today no matter which stage of life you’re in, while thinking about what tomorrow’s going to look like and how you’re going to get there.”

Tarnoff, a trained educator, social worker, health care administrator and artist, led the team that developed the program’s outline. Each course has a syllabus developed by an instructor, an expert in the subject being taught.

Mindfullness is one of the topics being taught as part of the series. Other topics include planning for retirement, navigating life’s transitions and understanding and managing personal finances.

Tarnoff will draw on her art and education background as instructor for “Color My Life: Tools for Managing Mood and Stress,” a six-week course beginning on Oct. 7 that explores the power of color and its ability to boost energy, sharpen focus and relax both body and mind. In February, she will teach “Color My World: Tools for Creative Communication at Work and Play,” which builds on the previous course.

Like the other courses in the series, Tarnoff’s sessions offer continuing education credits. All courses are taught at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St. on the UW-Madison campus.

Tarnoff and her team examined possible topics from an emotional, spiritual, occupational and financial point of view. Each course followed a methodology based on research conducted on the UW-Madison campus or at other universities.

Most courses can accommodate up to 30 students, but the optimal size for many requires is six to 12 students, Tarnoff says. Fees range from $135 to $270, based on course length and content.

Bringing greater balance and mindfulness to all areas of life is the program’s guiding principle, Tarnoff says. “We’re looking for experiences that transform us for the better and all of these classes have exactly that potential.”

The UW series of courses hadn’t been created when I finished my own mindfulness training in June. I have meditated every day since.

My sense of peace and calm are now constant companions. My blood pressure is normal and I am not taking any type of medication. My mother-in-law’s health continues to decline, but she has overcome her earlier illnesses. I am no longer affiliated with UW-Stevens Point, but am happy to note that the nursing program I helped develop is well on its way to accreditation.

Oh, and I also successfully defended my dissertation, receiving my doctorate in nursing in June. I guess you can call me Dr. Nurse.

Life, at last, is good. Thanks to mindfulness training, I am still around to enjoy it.

Madison resident Jean Muckian holds a Ph.D. and is an RN. 

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