Dancing in the Darkness

by Elizabeth

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A year ago I found myself in a deep well. This well was so deep I couldn’t see the sky. Even if I could have seen it, I wouldn’t have tried to look up. That’s how dark it seemed down there.

In the midst of this darkness, a friend invited me to attend a dance class with her. I hesitated. I didn’t have the right clothes. I didn’t have enough time. I wouldn’t know what I was doing; I might embarrass myself.

My friend told me I could easily find the appropriate clothes, and that it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know what I was doing. Her whole life, she said, she’d never been an exerciser, and she could follow along in class. She assured me I could too. She gave me the courage to try.

That first class found me in tears. I don’t remember what happened. I only know that whatever the teacher (who is a believer) was saying, it matched what God had been teaching me in my prayer times. The second class was the same as the first: more echoes of the whisper of God. And more tears.

The third class, same story. Clearly dance was touching deep, tender places inside me, but at least by that third week, the tears didn’t take me by surprise as much.

I’m a “words” person. Words are how I communicate with the world. They’re how I communicate with God. They’re how I communicate with myself. But after this last year, more and more I find myself agreeing with Jacob and Sarah Witting in Skylark that “sometimes words aren’t good enough.”

Dance speaks a different, wordless, type of language that wordy people like me need. We need to come back to ourselves, to live in our bodies again. Too often I live solely in my head. Thoughts, especially of the dark dreary kind, circle round and round and never find a resting place.

I’d been disconnected from my own body for so long. I didn’t know any other way to live. By the 5th grade I was already stuck in my head; I had already intellectualized everything. At church, women’s bodies were something to be wary of, an ever-present temptation for men. In my own life, a small set of breasts had still attracted the attention of a predator at church and church camp.

These early experiences taught me that the body was sinful, and we must transcend it by the Spirit. The body did no good, only bad. By the 9th grade I had developed an eating disorder. Is it any wonder?

But reconnecting with my body was what dance class was about. Because in that deep, dark well, something was missing, and that something was me. I had gone missing. And in some mysterious way, I met God on the dance floor and came back to myself.

I still remember the first time I could actually execute the turn I’d been practicing unsuccessfully for weeks. I felt a thrill that my body, not just my mind, could learn something new.

I still remember the first time I could actually look at my face in the mirror. All the other experienced dancers were looking in the mirror, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed vain somehow.

I still remember the first time I implemented a correction on the first try and started to think, maybe I can trust this body of mine. My body had seemed so untrustworthy for so long.

A funny thing happened when I started trusting my body: I became frightened. I had never trusted it before. Trust was what I’d been working towards, but the first time I felt it, it was so unfamiliar that it scared me.

I still remember the class when the teacher kept insisting that we “take up the space.” That we enlarge our movements and really take charge of the dance floor. It made me think about all the ways in which I live my life small, not daring to take up any space, physically or metaphorically.

This was an entry point into the rest of my life. I’m a writer, but even words were lost to me in that dark time. I had shrunk into myself, and I barely wrote anything that year. I wasn’t taking up space anywhere. But dance class challenged me to change that.

Attending class each week got me out of my head and into my body and – importantly – into the company of other people. Because sometimes healing isn’t a solitary venture. Healing is something that happens to us when we’re with people.

Sometime in the course of the year I stopped feeling ashamed of where I was (it’s easy to feel discouraged when you look at others much more skilled than yourself), and I began to better accept myself where I was.

My favorite part of last year’s dance classes, by far, was dancing to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” I couldn’t contort my body into many of the movements, and I could barely remember the order of the choreography. But this one thing I remember: “I once was lost but now am found.”

During this phrase we would fall to the floor flat on our backs, and then reach up for God. We repeated that movement over and over again throughout the spring months. There was something about confessing my lostness and declaring my foundness again and again that undid me every single week.

I knew I’d been lost that year – lost in anxiety and depression and health struggles and poor emotional choices. I lay on the dance floor the same way I lay at the bottom of the well – alone and in need of help. But each time I danced this song, I was also reminded that I had been found by a loving Father. There were times during that year when I refused to talk to God because He wasn’t healing me fast enough. Yet through all my confusion and stubbornness, He still found me.

Somehow week after week I met God on that dance floor. I never expected to meet God on a dance floor. I expected to meet him in an early morning quiet time. Or maybe a mountain top, or an ocean front. Certainly not a sprung laminate floor.

We broke for the summer and returned to class a few weeks ago. Those first few classes were enough to remind me that I am still a beginner. But you know what? That’s ok. When I first started dancing, the instructor told me that “dance is a journey.”  It’s not about arriving or finishing. He repeated himself to me just last week: this is a journey.

I’ve been on a healing journey this last year. Maybe you’re on a healing journey too. Maybe you need physical healing. Maybe you need emotional healing. Maybe the healing is slow in coming. Maybe you feel God is too slow in healing you. Sometimes God heals us in big, sudden ways in an experience or an event, but sometimes He heals in slow, nearly inconspicuous ways.

And sometimes He reaches down into a deep, dark well and week by week gently pulls us up.

And then we see the sky.

And then we dance.

 

Originally appeared at Velvet Ashes; reprinted with permission.

Saying Goodbye to the Automatic No {how I learned to have fun again}

by Elizabeth

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This photo. It looks so simple and sweet, the picture of a woman enjoying herself on holiday. But it’s more than that. Much more. This photo also represents a victory in a long-standing tug-of-war with the AUTOMATIC NO.

Are you familiar with the Automatic No? It’s an old acquaintance of mine, a seemingly comfortable companion. It’s cunning. It’s clever. But it’s actually a traitor to happiness.

The Automatic No sneaks into relationships and slowly poisons them. Someone, usually a family member, will ask you to do something fun with them, and you decline. How many times have I done this?? How many times has a loved one asked me to play with them, and I said no without really thinking about it?

I’d been obeying the Automatic No for a long time without ever knowing it. Sometimes there’s an underlying fear — I’m afraid of this or that germ, afraid of this or that injury. Sometimes there’s an underlying laziness — I just don’t want to move or get up. And sometimes there’s an underlying assumption that “fun is for kids.”

I wouldn’t generally articulate my reasons. I would just say no and stay out of the activity. Over and over again, I chose to remove myself from the merriment without ever asking why.

But then last year happened. A colleague of my husband’s helped us pinpoint OCD as the cause of so much mental anguish in my life. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: it made so much sense. At last, I had a label for my oddities. Finally, we had an explanation for my eccentricities.

So I dove into the literature on OCD. Some of the most helpful work came from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, author of Brainlock. Brainlock describes what happens in the brain of a person with OCD, and it prescribes a plan for changing your brain by changing your behavior.

And let me tell you, this plan works. Of course, it only works if you implement the strategies, but the strategies are highly effective. (Watch this 30-minute video for an introduction to the four-step plan for treating OCD.)

Basically what happens in that the gear-shifting system in the brain (the cingulate system) is “sticky.” It doesn’t shift well. So when a thought, usually something bothersome, dangerous, or anxiety-provoking, comes into an OCD mind, it literally cannot leave. The thought is physically stuck on a loop. The brain can’t move from anxiety to safety because the gear shift is faulty.

It takes a lot of work to shift gears, especially at the beginning of treatment. And it is this lack of ability to flex that causes us to say no automatically. We don’t think through our answers; we just say no. We can’t shift our attention very easily, and NO is always an easy answer to give.

My husband, who works as a pastoral counselor, has a lot of books on mental and emotional health laying around the house. One of them is Dr. Daniel Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. I picked it up and flipped to the sections on fear & anxiety and on worry & obsessiveness.

It was in the section on worry & obsessiveness that I discovered the name of my adversary: the Automatic No. It was in the pages of that chapter that I came face to face with my tendency to destroy fun in a relationship.

When invited into the fun, I don’t explore it. I don’t get curious. I don’t ask myself if I really want to do something. I just say no. I don’t even consider it. I just say no to getting in the water and swimming with my family, even though I always enjoyed it as a child. I don’t play ball games with my family. I stay on the sidelines and watch. I don’t do that fun thing my husband is asking me to do. I opt out.

Because why should I say yes, when I could just as easily say no instead?

But I recognized myself immediately in the description of the Automatic No, and it scared me. So I determined to alter my customary no’s. To at least try to fight back against my familiar, well-trodden brain paths. To give myself time before answering the invitation. Time to think about whether I really have to say no, or whether I could possibly say yes. I never knew I could say yes, that I could try it and see. Maybe I’ll like it, and maybe I won’t. But I’ll never know unless I try.

So I started saying yes more often. It was a tentative “yes?” at first. But soon my yeses became firmer. The first picture below was nearly an Automatic No. It was a recent holiday, and we were at the mall. I was watching the kids play Skeeball at the arcade. I was cheering them on when out of the blue, my husband asked me if I wanted to play. He had enough coins if I wanted.

Initially I told him, “Nah.” But then I stopped myself. I asked myself what I really wanted, and it turns out, I DID want to play. I hadn’t been thinking through the offer. I had just been offering that dread Automatic No again.

But when I took a moment to mull it over, I remembered that Skeeball was my favorite arcade game as a child. It was the only game I ever played at Chuck E. Cheese, in fact. I had just assumed that “arcade games are for kids.” I never considered playing as an adult (even though my husband plays these games all the time).

So a minute later I nudged him and said, “Actually, I think I DO want to play this game.” And I did. He took this photo after I had just made a 40-point score. That look is not posed; it’s pure joy.

After Skeeball, we all played at the basketball machines — that’s the bottom photo. But I would never have tried my hand at basketball had I not rethought my original Skeeball “no.”

It’s hard at first to say “no” to the Automatic No, but it gets easier with practice. And with time, rejecting the Automatic No leads to a lot more fun in life. Little yes by little yes, we change our brains, and we change our lives.

So if you, like me, say NO to the fun far more frequently than is good for you, I dare you to go out and say YES to something today. Who knows? One little yes may be all that it takes to change everything.

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A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 4: Tracking Your Cycles}

Today we come to the end of this PMS series. We’ve talked about changing the way we eat, about adding supplements to our lives, and about exercise, breathing, and rest. Now we’re going to talk about tracking our cycles.

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1. Count Those Days, Ladies

For nearly a decade, I charted for both birth control and pregnancy achievement. I tracked my symptoms, including my morning waking temperature and cervical fluid. But after we moved overseas and decided for safety reasons not to have any more children (I tend to hemorrhage really badly at birth), I didn’t think I needed to chart anymore.

It felt like freedom not to have to keep track of symptoms, not to have to remember to take my temperature. So when my PMS got really bad and my husband suggested returning to some form of charting, I resisted. I didn’t want an extra complication in my life. I felt that life was heavy enough without charting. I thought that keeping better track of my cycles sounded like too much of a burden.

Honestly, charting felt like a cross I had to carry. This wasn’t fair, I thought. Why couldn’t my body work the way it used to work, so simply, so easily, without my doing anything to make it run nicely? Why did things have to change and force me to do extra work?

But as Simcha Fisher reminds us in her book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, “A cross is a cross.” (Note: my copy of this book is underlined up and down. Regardless of whether you practice NFP, the wisdom Simcha offers on married sexuality is some of the best I’ve read anywhere.) This might seem like a small thing, but it felt huge to me at the time.

I started keeping better track of my cycles anyway. At first, yes, it seemed so obnoxious. But over time I’ve become accustomed to it again (though I’m not tracking temperature). And somewhere along the lines I realigned my thinking with Fisher’s: “I can see my fertility as a gift that I need help caring for, not as a burden.”

Because I’m keeping track of the days, I now know when to be more prepared for anxiety and OCD symptoms, when to work out harder or more consistently, when to do my breathing exercises, and when to try harder not to yell at my kids for something silly (because I’ll just feel terrible and have to apologize later).

I am not perfect at this, but I am more aware than before. I purposely try to stop myself from overreacting to little things in the second half of my cycle. I also have to be careful just before ovulation, because there’s a hormonal shift that occurs then too. I can become irrational just at ovulation instead of after. It varies from month to month, so I keep watch.

Some days I wake up and am angry at the whole world. Lots of people in specific and lots of people in general. That’s often a wake-up call that PMS is beginning. I try to be aware of when it happens and take my anger and angst less seriously. Thankfully I have a husband who, while taking PMS seriously, doesn’t take my extreme statements too seriously.

Do you remember Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride? I loved that movie as a teenager, and this clip in particular describes irrational, overreacting me at certain times of the month (in addition to making me laugh!).

Here’s some more cycle-related humor. A friend shared this photo, and “stupid fruit time” has become part of our family vernacular.

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But to return to more serious matter, my OB-GYN says this about PMS in the late 30s: “Your hormones will be getting more wacky as your girls hit puberty, so getting the PMS stuff under control NOW will significantly help you when they are going the reverse hormone process in a very few short years.”

This statement was another wake-up call for me. It forced me to consider the way my hormonal issues will impact my daughters, the way their hormonal issues will impact me, and the way all of our combined hormones will impact our family relationships. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to sacrifice on the altar of PMS, it’s family relationships.

So I am committed to feeding myself quality food, supplementing where I need to, exercising and resting regularly, and counting the days of my menstrual cycle.

If you have never kept track of your cycles, you might want to read up on fertility awareness with Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. In it, she explains that not every woman ovulates on Day 14. Some ovulate earlier, some later, and it can change from month to month too. Likewise, the second half of your cycle, the luteal phase, can vary in length.

Although women’s cycle lengths can vary, here is a graphic my OB friend sent me that shows all the differing hormones and changes throughout the month. Weschler’s book has many graphics like this.

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2. Beware Those Blood Sugar Dips

Also called being “hangry,” low blood sugar problems can be exacerbated in the pre-menstrual time. Some mornings I wake up feeling fine, but then I walk into the kitchen to find that someone has used my favorite mug. (But watch out family, because my favorite mug tends to change from month to month.)

Or I walk into the living room to find that someone has left a pile of books right where I want to sit and read and sip decaf out of that favorite mug. Or someone is already awake and making noise or asking me to do something for them, even though they know they’re not supposed to ask yet.

In these moments I try to remember that I need to put something in my mouth before letting rude or thoughtless words slip out of my mouth. There have even been times my husband has said something innocuous to me at the breakfast table, and I’ve wanted to snap back. In those times I try to remember not to respond in the moment but rather to say, “I need to eat something.” He understands this statement implicitly (or impliedly as it were – inside joke between the two of us).

Nearly always, I feel more in control of my emotions after I’ve eaten something. I’m usually not even upset about the offending person or event. And if I still am, I can discuss it more reasonably. So if you get hangry, especially in the mornings, try to be aware of it. Remember: eat before talking. Food before fighting.

The pre-menstrual time may also be the time that you are craving junk food. It’s really better if you don’t give in to that craving. As we talked about before, high-sugar and processed foods do nothing to lift our mood. Unhealthy food actually worsens our blood sugar highs and lows and consequently, worsens our mood swings (except for very dark chocolate – indulge in that one!).

 

3. Watch Your Self-Talk

Now a word about your inner world. Do not believe everything your brain says to you in the week or so before your period! Do not believe that everyone is judging you. Do not believe that everyone is angry with you or rejecting you. Even if they don’t respond to your text right away.

Do not believe that your husband, or your co-worker, or your children, or that your God, are out to get you. That’s the hormones talking, and we do not have to believe them!

Since I’ve implemented the steps I offered in parts 1, 2, and 3, my mood is more stable, but I still have days and even hours when it’s not. I still have to be mindful of what’s going on inside me.

So I’ll echo the encouragement from my OB: “You are NOT ALONE!!” Truly, we are in this together. We are sisters in this messy, fallen, chemically-complicated, tech-driven modern world. That is unfortunately the world we live in. But instead of cursing it, let us choose life rather than death.

I love the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30: “Today I am giving you a choice. You can choose life and success or death and disaster (verse 15, Contemporary English Version).

He continues in verses 19 and 20: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life (NIV).

A year ago when I realized I needed to make a lot of changes in my life, life was truly a disaster. I felt overwhelmed. I was in such a dark place that when I read about various changes I could make, I interpreted the advice as PRESSURE. I could not see it as possibility. I thought it was “pull myself up by my bootstraps” and “cure myself.” Changing, choosing life, felt like one more thing I could not handle.

But now after a year of making small changes, of making slow but steady progress, I feel the promise rather than the pressure. I know that I am not the Healer, but I see the ways in which God invites me to participate in my own healing. I now know that what felt like rock-bottom was actually an invitation from God to be a priest taking better care of my temple.

My mindset has morphed from Jacob’s begrudging “everything is against me” (in Genesis 42:36) into gratitude that I’ve been given this chance to make healthy changes. I am getting better at choosing life.

Together, we can choose life. We can choose what to put in our bodies, how to move our bodies, and what to think and believe, especially during certain days of the month. So resist the temptation to believe you have no control over your PMS. We have so many ways to manage it more effectively.

And remember, on the days when we don’t make good choices, there is grace. We don’t have to “choose life” perfectly. The God of peace is with us and within us. So make the best decisions that you can, and then, dear soul, be at rest.

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Here are some of the main sources of information that I relied on over this past year.

Karen Hurd is a nutritionist with a Masters in biochemistry. She explains how to eat for better mental health and offers several free resources. I also rented her PMS seminar.

Dr. Aviva Romm is a midwife and M.D. I purchased her book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution and also depended heavily on her website. Here’s a post specifically on PMS.

Christa Orrechio is also a nutritionist whose advice I followed. Here’s her post on PMS.

A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 2: Supplements}

by Elizabeth

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In the first part of this series, I discussed the changes I’ve made to my eating habits over the last year to make PMS easier to deal with. In this installment, I’ll discuss supplements that can help with PMS.

And this is where it gets tricky – because supplements can be like drugs, and I’m not a doctor. So again I’ll say, do your own research and talk to your own doctor about any supplements you want to take.

I’ll also tell you up front that I don’t use a lot of supplements. They tend to be expensive here, and it can be hard to find the specific supplement you want. A lot of friends who use supplements need to buy in bulk and bring them from their passport country – or have friends bring them on visits.

Additionally, the more I researched the specific vitamins and minerals I needed for my main symptoms, the more I realized that the healthier food I was eating was already providing most of what I needed. I do, however, take a few supplements.

 

1. Magnesium for Headaches and Anxiety

Everywhere I looked, magnesium seemed to be a highly recommended supplement. Magnesium is a mineral (as opposed to a vitamin) that’s supposed to help with anxiety and sleep. Interestingly, when I looked for natural remedies for migraine headaches back when I was pregnant and nursing, magnesium was a recommended supplement for treating headaches.

Some nutritionists believe that most people are deficient in magnesium. Whether that’s true or not, I felt like my symptoms (anxiety and headaches) did point to a magnesium deficiency, and I was able to find some magnesium here in country. It’s not the “most bioavailable” form that all those nutrition experts claim you need, but it seems to alleviate my symptoms. I try to take one pill a day for most of the month. If I can feel anxiety rising in the post-ovulation period, I’ll take an extra one each day.

I also take extra magnesium when I have a headache. That’s usually on the day before my period starts or the day it starts. It can also happen if I stay up too late watching a movie with my husband. I carry extra magnesium pills with me in my purse. (I’ve learned helpful stretches for both headaches and cramps that I will share in a later section.)

Another tactic I use for dealing with headaches is peppermint oil. Please note that essential oils need to be used topically and that they need to be diluted. We’re talking a couple drops here, diluted in water or some other carrier oil like coconut or jojoba. I dilute peppermint oil with water and rub it into the base of my neck, where my migraine headaches originate. You can also rub a bit into your temples if you get tension headaches. (And yes, I realize that essential oils are controversial, but topically applied peppermint oil really helps with my headaches.)

Another way I treat my headaches is with green tea. I know I said I gave up caffeine, so let me explain the back story here. I had menstrual cramps as a teenager, and even then I had difficulty finding an over-the-counter medication to help. Sometimes Aleve (naproxen sodium) helped miraculously, but sometimes it didn’t help at all. Tylenol (acetaminophen or paracetomol) rarely helped either headaches or cramps.

I landed on Advil (ibuprofen) as my cramp and migraine drug of choice. The only thing was, I kept needing to use more. 400 mg was no longer cutting it; I needed 600. I was a little nervous I would eventually need 800 mg per dose. And I needed to take it more often. I didn’t just take it in the morning; I needed more in the afternoon too.

But the thing was, the ibuprofen was tearing up my stomach. If I wasn’t careful to eat a lot of food with it, I had terrible stomach pain. Ibuprofen use is linked to a lot of stomach issues, and I knew I needed to stop using it. So the first thing I did was try to switch back to Tylenol and see if it would work. Turns out, it does, though over the last year I’ve been able to wean myself mostly off the Tylenol too.

I didn’t only take increasing doses of ibuprofen for the cramps and headaches; I was also washing down that ibuprofen with a cup of strong coffee. Caffeine can treat headaches; it’s a component of some over-the-counter headache medications. But as I drank more and more coffee throughout my days, that meant that when I needed to treat a headache, I would swallow 3 ibuprofen pills and wash them down with an extra cup of strong coffee. Ouch!

Now that I’ve eliminated the coffee, I’m sensitive to caffeine again. The small amounts of caffeine in green tea are enough to help with the headaches when they happen a couple times a month. Or I might drink some green tea after I’ve had a particularly bad night’s sleep. I don’t need to use the caffeine in green tea very often, but it’s nice to know it’s available should I need it.

 

2. Probiotics for Anxiety and Gut Health

Some research suggests that the “good” bacteria in our digestive tracts manufacture some of our feel-good hormones. It also suggests that the “bad” bacteria makes us crave sugar, and that when we eat sugar, we contribute to the overgrowth of bad bacteria or yeasts. We always have some of both, but they’re supposed to be in balance.

So if we don’t have enough of the good bacteria, either because we took antibiotics and killed them off, or because we eat a diet too high in sugar and not high enough in healthy fiber, the bacteria in our guts can get out of balance, and we can tend toward anxiety, sugar cravings, and even weight gain.

I was guilty on both counts. There are way too many opportunities to need antibiotics in a developing country, and as discussed before, I consumed way too many hidden sugars.

Research has shown that something as simple as eating more live-cultured yogurt (regardless of whether it’s sweetened of unsweetened) can reduce anxiety in women. I know this gut-brain connection sounds kind of weird, and it’s a newer area of research. But I definitely needed help with the anxiety, and probiotics are also good for keeping all kinds of female infections away (this has been shown in other studies).

So not only do I consume probiotics in yogurt and kefir, but I also try to purchase probiotic supplements. I can’t just hop over to a health food store like I could in America. But when people have come to visit, I’ve sent them probiotics to bring me, and I know a couple people in country who sell probiotics, too. I’ve been able to get some from them. I don’t know if the pills are as effective as food, but they seem like a good idea for my symptoms, and I take them faithfully.

 

3. Vitamins A, B, C, D, E

Basically all the vitamins, right?! Different sources cited all these vitamins as potential helps for PMS. However, I have chosen not to supplement with extra vitamins. As I explained in the beginning, the more I looked into the vitamins and minerals my body needed, the more I realized that my new eating plan should be providing most of these necessary vitamins.

I’m not opposed to taking vitamins, but at this point I’ve seen enough improvement through diet alone that, with the exception of magnesium and probiotics, I don’t feel the need to spend the extra money.

If you are going to take extra vitamins, I would recommend discussing with a doctor. He or she can administer blood tests and give you recommendations, because you don’t want to overdose on vitamins. The exception to this rule might be a regular multivitamin, which should be formulated to have safe levels of vitamins and minerals if that’s the only supplement you are taking.

 

4. Herbs, Amino Acids, and Essential Fatty Acids

There are a lot of other herbs and supplements sold for various PMS symptoms. So far I’ve chosen not to use them. However, I do feel comfortable with the small amount of herbs in herbal teas. Teas that are supposedly good for anxiety are peppermint, chamomile, lavender, and red/rooibos. I drink all these teas and like them all, though rooibos and peppermint are my favorites.

But I have a lot of friends who’ve found great success with various supplements. So if you want to look into other herbs, amino acids, or essential fatty acids, I would recommend doing your own research and talking to your own doctor. And if you find one that helps, by all means, use it!

 

5. Prescription Medications

Here is what my OB-GYN had to say about medications when diet and lifestyle changes are not enough:

“Low dose OCPs (oral contraceptive pills) suppress the surges of hormone (that get more drastic peaks and troughs as we get closer to menopause) and replace them with steady state hormones, which is why they are effective for PMS depressive mood/anxiety disorder. 

“SSRIs can also help, and can be taken cyclically rather than every day. Hormones and/or SSRIs are a reasonable short-medium term option if the severity of effects are driving you nuts.”  

So if hormonal issues are affecting your relationships and your daily life, and your other lifestyle changes don’t seem to be helping enough, definitely talk to your doctor about prescription options.

 

6. Perfumes and Fragrances

This doesn’t exactly fit into the supplement category, but it doesn’t fit into food, exercise, or cycle tracking either, so I thought here would be the best place to discuss it. I think it’s too important to leave out. The more I looked into ways to naturally balance your hormones, the more recommendations I found to reduce or eliminate exposure to artificial fragrances and perfumes.

Maybe these things don’t affect you, but they have always affected me. I have never done well with perfumes. They have always given me headaches. I would wear them, trying to convince my body to get used to them and stop reacting. But I never stopped having headaches with them.

I sometimes react to the scents in makeup or hair care products, and I always know when the neighbors are doing their laundry, because the fabric softener wafts up through my windows and hurts my eyes and gives me a headache. Even sitting behind someone wearing perfume in church can give me a headache, and I can barely walk by the detergent and cleaning supplies aisle in a store (in Asia or America), the smells are so strong.

(What is up with our obsession with scented cleaning products?? As a friend of mine likes to say, “Clean smells like . . . nothing!”)

There are a lot of reasons to suspect that fragrances and perfumes interfere with our hormones, too. They may smell nice, but they are not natural. Those good smells come from a concoction of artificial chemicals, and most of the time they are also skin irritants (eczema, acne, etc).

If we’re doing all this hard work to eat and drink better and to take helpful vitamins and supplements, then why would we deliberately put something on our bodies that could be irritating our skin or interfering with our hormones?

Fragrances are also hiding in our menstrual products and personal lubricants. It’s frustrating that in this day and age, companies are still putting fragrances and irritants in our personal care products, because the skin in that area is super sensitive and deserves to be treated with care.

Scented menstrual products are a big trigger for my skin issues, and that’s been really frustrating in Cambodia. I can’t tell you how many products I’ve purchased over the years, only to bring them home, open them up, and realize they were scented. Finally in the past year I’ve been able to find a brand that seems as unscented and non-irritating as I’m going to find here.

It’s can be hard to find fragrance-free soap, makeup, and laundry detergent, but I stock up when I can, or I use the least fragranced products that I can find. I just know I feel better when I use as few fragranced products as possible, and this step might help you too.

What I’m saying here again is, do what you can to avoid irritants and other chemicals that trigger headaches and skin rashes or that potentially destabilize your hormones, but if there’s something you can’t change, try not to stress about it. You don’t need the extra stress in your life that this kind of worry will bring.

 

Part 1: Dietary Changes

Part 3: Movement and Rest

Part 4: Tracking Your Cycles

A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 1: Dietary Changes}

by Elizabeth

PMS

From the title you can probably guess that this one’s for the ladies. (All you guys out there can take a pass.)

And truly, I never thought I would blog about this. But someone recently asked me for advice on dealing with PMS. I didn’t know the specifics of her situation (PMS symptoms run the gamut of the physical and emotional), so I just threw everything I had at her, hoping something would stick. My husband looked at my list and told me that it could help a lot of people and that I should turn it into a blog post.

So here we are, talking about Pre-Menstrual Syndrome in a public forum.

First let me give you all the caveats. I am not a medical professional. I am not a nutritionist or dietitian. I am just a 38-year-old woman who has had to get better control over her physical and emotional states in the past year, because the situation had become desperate. I dreaded half of every single month, and so did my husband.

I’ll simply be sharing things that worked for me. I recommend that you do your own research and talk to your own doctor before making any changes. I talked with both my nurse-midwife and a friend who is an OB-GYN about most of these things, and I’ll note their advice in each section.

I would also recommend that you start slow. You want your changes to be sustainable over the long run. I’ll be sharing a lot of options here. Starting small and getting a handle on just one or two things first, before adding anything new, can go a long way in making these changes permanent lifestyle changes. And that’s what you want – permanent changes. You won’t be able to sustain the benefits if you can’t sustain the habits.

I would also encourage you to be patient. Your mind and your body will improve in response to your changing choices, but it takes time, sometimes a lot of time. In my experience the physical symptoms improved long before the mental symptoms improved, but they did improve over time. Some sources say to wait at least 3 months before expecting meaningful change – that’s how long our hormonal systems need to adjust.

Everything is cumulative, so there’s a sort of snowball effect that happens when you’re able to implement a bunch of strategies at once, but it’s also true that every small change can be helpful. So don’t lose heart in the beginning.

Ok, now that that’s done, here’s a little medical definition of PMS, according to my OB-GYN friend: “Ovulation is marked by massive progesterone surge, and progesterone stays elevated until just before the next menses.  Hence the ‘premenstrual’ syndrome is more accurately a ‘post-ovulation-syndrome.’ Progesterone causes fluid retention, can be associated with irritability and depressed mood, and in general is a pain in our heads!”

Here are the main pre-menstrual (or post-ovulation) symptoms I was dealing with: anxiety, moodiness, snappiness, irritability, recurrent female infections, breast tenderness, and to a lesser extent, acne.

I was also dealing with menstrual cramps and migraine headaches on first day of my cycle and/or the day before.

In this article I’ll be discussing diet. In the following articles in this series, I’ll discuss supplements, movement & rest, and emotion/cycle tracking.

I’m starting with diet because that’s a place where a lot of us fall short. I don’t think we can just pop a pill or swallow a supplement and watch our symptoms magically disappear, not if we are dumping garbage into our temples. We have to do the work of changing how we eat.

I have a history of an eating disorder, and for years I ate a highly unbalanced, carb-heavy, nutrient-light diet. However, I paid very careful attention to my eating when I was pregnant and nursing, because someone else’s well-being was depending on me. But when I was done with those precious childbearing years, I let a lot of my healthy eating habits lapse. This has been especially true in the midst of stressful overseas living. So believe me when I tell you, I had a lot of room for growth.

Here’s a list of some changes you can make, along with the potential symptoms they relieve, according to what I’ve read and experienced. Explanations and plans for implementing the changes can be found in each section, along with my personal stories.

  1. Decrease caffeine intake: reduces anxiety, breast pain, and sleep disturbances.
  2. Decrease sugar and refined carbohydrates: reduces mood swings, acne, and female infections.
  3. Increase quality protein, fats, and fiber: reduces anxiety, acne, and mood swings.
  4. Decrease alcohol: reduces sleep disturbances.
  5. Decrease dairy: reduces breast tenderness.

 

1. Decrease caffeine

I had developed a dependence on coffee in language school and over the years had increased my intake to 3-4 cups per day. That’s how much I needed to get through a day. Now that I’ve given it up, I realize what a large amount of caffeine I was consuming.  And interestingly, now that I don’t drink coffee, I actually have the energy to make it through my days without coffee.

Caffeine can be problematic for many reasons including sleep, anxiety, and breast tenderness. Caffeine is a stimulant – that’s how it keeps you awake. It can make your heart race and worsen your anxiety. With all the extra stress and screen time in our modern lives, the last thing most of us need is an extra stimulant.

And indeed, I initially decided to cut out caffeine because of my rising anxiety. I had anxiety every day of my cycle, but it spiked really high after ovulation (mid-cycle) and didn’t drop until my next cycle began. And even then, the anxiety didn’t really disappear. It was just less than the anxiety of the pre-menstrual period.

But it was so hard for me to give up the caffeine! It took me a full 2 months to cut out all the coffee. I cut out a cup at a time and waited for my body to adjust. It basically took me two weeks to adjust to every cup (or half cup) that I cut out. I was tired all the time and got a lot of headaches. Eventually I was able to switch to decaf coffee.

I love a hot drink. It’s so comforting. But these days you’ll find me drinking either that decaf coffee or various herbal teas. My favorite herbal teas are peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, and rooibos (red). These teas are all supposedly good for anxiety. Even if they have no positive effect on anxiety, at least they are all caffeine-free and thus have no negative effect.

It’s important to note that decaf coffee still has caffeine in it, but it’s greatly reduced. I seem to do fine on the decaf, though, even when drinking it at night with my husband. I also still eat dark chocolate and will occasionally drink green tea (but I’ll explain that in another section).

After I gave up coffee, I drank black tea (which has less caffeine than coffee) on vacation and noticed a marked increase in anxiety that week/month. And then there was that one boiling hot April morning without electricity when I drank an iced coffee trying to cool off. I thought I would be fine, but my body reacted really badly to the caffeine. My heart began to race, my breathing sped up, and I felt flushed all over (the opposite feeling from what I was going for), so I really do avoid regular coffee.

 

2. Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates

Just like the coffee, the sugar and processed food consumption sneaked up on me. I was busy homeschooling four kids and running a website. I began depending more and more heavily on packaged foods for myself and my kids, simply because it saved time. Super sweet yogurt drinks, packaged crackers or cookies, lots of white pasta and canned sauces.

But sugar wreaks havoc on our hormones, beginning with blood sugar dysregulation and ending with terrible moodiness. When we consume sugary or sweet things, our blood sugar levels spike, forcing our pancreas to pump out a bunch of insulin to shuttle that unnatural amount of sugar out of circulation and into our cells.

Unfortunately, the pancreas usually overshoots. That’s because it is sensing the rate of the blood sugar rise, not the amount of sugar. (I will refrain from geeking out over calculus here.) Our bodies don’t know that the sugar intake will stop; they just know that the blood sugar is rising too rapidly for safety. So the pancreas dumps too much insulin into our systems.

This leads to a blood sugar crash. Blood sugar drops below the normal level, making us hungry again very quickly and also making us moody. So we reach for something sugary again. When we eat this way, we are willingly putting ourselves on an emotional roller coaster. We end up snapping at our families, and they don’t deserve to be snapped at simply because we haven’t taken the time and attention to nourish ourselves well.

Alternatively, if we can’t get to food when our blood sugar drops low, our adrenal glands will work to increase our blood sugar without food consumption. This is quite an elegant system, but when we abuse it by depending on it on a daily basis, we can wear our adrenals out. (Caffeine is another one of those adrenal stressors, and depending on it to get through your day is another way of wearing out your body.)

Additionally, sugar consumption (in all its forms) tamps down on our immune systems. So even though we crave sugar and may even claim that we feel better when we eat it, it’s just bad for us, all around. As my OB-GYN says: “You have insulin jumping in here to help confuse the picture, so take the avoidance of simple carbs part seriously.”

Practically speaking, cutting out sugar can be harder than it sounds. Sugar lurks in a lot of places, including cereal, yogurt, peanut butter, pasta sauces, salad dressings, and salsa. I didn’t even have a sweet tooth. I wasn’t craving or eating a lot of desserts. I just ate too many simple carbs.

So I had to find and eliminate the hidden sugars and refined carbohydrates (which are so broken down already that they act nearly like sugar in the body). I was really dedicated to eliminating sugars because of repeat infections in the pre-menstrual period. I was losing my mind and could not handle any more of these painful infections.

Here are a few examples of the changes I made.

  • Boxed cereals. Oh how I loved Cinnamon Life and Cheerios (when I could find them on the shelves). Now I will occasionally eat cooked whole grains like buckwheat, millet, quinoa, or oats, but not every day.
  • Refined grains. I stopped eating packaged crackers (there are some really yummy ones here, but they are all made with a lot of white flour and sugar). I stopped eating Pringles (in years past I could down half a can in one sitting, especially when I was really hungry). I will occasionally eat popcorn with a movie. I eat tortilla chips with our favorite bean soup probably once a week.
  • Pasta, rice, and bread. I stopped eating white rice with our Khmer lunches and just eat the main dish by itself. I stopped eating pasta, couscous, and bread. {If you’ve known me since adolescence, you’ll know what a big change this was for me.}
  • Yogurt. I stopped drinking sweetened yogurt drinks and stopped eating regular sweetened yogurt. I started buying an unsweetened yogurt (made locally here). It was so sour at first I could hardly stand it, but I forced myself to keep eating it. Now it tastes only slightly sour to me. I’m sometimes able to find unsweetened kefir here locally too. (Kefir is a fermented dairy drink with more probiotics than yogurt, but it definitely still tastes sour to me.)
  • Peanut Butter. I love peanut butter! But I stopped eating regular peanut butter and started buying natural, unsweetened peanut butter (also made locally). I also started eating nuts for snacks.
  • Salad dressings, pasta sauces, salsas, and seasoning packets. I still use these on occasion, but I’ve also made my own sometimes. Since I don’t use them very often, this hasn’t been an area of too much concern for me, although it is another way to cut down sugar if you want to.
  • Coffee creamers. Yes, I used to put these non-dairy coffee creamers in my coffee. Yuck. They contain extra sugars and bad fats and are full of strange-sounding chemicals. It’s shocking to think about how many of these little creamer packets I used to use! Now I stick to plain coconut milk.

 

3. Replace the junk with quality proteins, fats, and fiber.

I’ve heard it called “carbage” — a clever combination of “carbohydrates” and “garbage.” But you can’t just cut out sugar and refined carbs; you have to add in the good stuff too. Protein, fat, and fiber blunt your blood sugar response to any carbs you might eat. They keep you feeling full longer and supply sustained energy over several hours. This will help with the moodiness and irritability.

There are other reasons for protein, fat, and fiber too.

  • You need a sufficient amount of amino acids (which are found in protein) to make your neurotransmitters (happy chemicals in the brain). Eating a lot of protein is therefore especially important for dealing with anxiety. In fact one counselor told me that “anxious brains need a lot of protein.”
  • You need enough healthy fats for your body to produce and stabilize your female hormones as well as build healthy skin and tissues.
  • And you need fiber (both soluble and insoluble) to feed the good bacteria in your intestines, keep your digestion regular, and to eliminate excess hormones in your body.

I will be honest with you. I made mistakes on this road. When I first cut the carbs, I suddenly couldn’t find enough to eat. Everything I had been eating was processed or taboo in some way. I was afraid to eat nearly everything except eggs, yogurt, chicken, and nuts. I was afraid of the dangerous, hidden carbs in everything. I wouldn’t even eat complex carbs. That made for a hungry, hangry momma.

It also made me accidentally lose some weight, weight I probably shouldn’t have lost. (I have since regained it.) I was so afraid of foods that could potentially make me sick again. I developed so much anxiety around food, and that just added to all the anxiety in my life. I kept thinking of food as potential poison rather than nourishment. It took me a while to relearn how to eat complex carbs.

So this is where I will quote my midwife: “Complex carbs are fine.”

And here’s what constitutes a complex carb: beans, vegetables, and the occasional whole grain. Complex carbs are not, as I thought in high school, a dish of pasta or a bowl (or bag) of pretzels. Complex carbs are slow-burning. The fiber in beans and vegetables is especially nourishing to our systems. (In my opinion, whole grains don’t offer the same amount of nutrition as beans and vegetables.) But when I first started on this healthy eating journey, I was even afraid to eat them. Now I find that I feel so much better when I do eat enough plant foods. So don’t be like me. Eat your veggies and beans.

In fact, my anxiety and breast tenderness spiked even higher when I first cut out the carbs. I could tell the very instant I ovulated, because my hormones shifted, my progesterone soared, my anxiety spiked, and strong breast pain appeared out of nowhere. What I eventually figured out was that I was depending too much on animal products. The first form of plant fiber/protein I added back in, as a way to counter all those animal foods, was beans. I found that when I put the beans back in, the breast tenderness very quickly subsided.

This is the advice my OB-GYN friend gave me: “Eat many anti-oxidant foods (blueberries, spinach, kale), other veggies, legumes, complex proteins.”

And here is where I get my protein these days:

  • Yogurt, kefir, and cheese.
  • Beans of all kinds. (Hummus and other bean dips, along with bean and lentil soups.)
  • Chicken and eggs.
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. (I like walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds the best, but I can’t always find them cheap enough or at all, so I take what I can get, when I can get it.)

Here is where I get my fat these days:

  • Eggs.
  • Yogurt and cheese.
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. (Notice how several of these items do double duty here? Nice.)
  • Butter (for cooking eggs), olive oil (for dressings and hummus), and coconut oil. (Yes, I know that last one is controversial, but I’m sufficiently comfortable with it to eat it, especially when mixed with a nut butter and some cocoa powder – yum!)
  • I eat 85% dark chocolate when I can find it. I still consider 70% too sweet.

Here is where I get my fiber these days:

  • Beans
  • Vegetables (My go-to veggies are carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers, and leafy greens.)
  • Garlic and onions (They’re good for the immune system and have a special kind of fiber that feeds the good bacteria inside us.)
  • Flax seeds (They also do double duty on fats.)

I know that we are “supposed” to get a lot of our proteins and essential fatty acids from fatty fish, but I will again be honest and tell you that fish is not one of my favorite things. I wish I could like it, but at this point, I don’t, and it’s not worth it to me to try to force myself. Neither do I like taking fish oil. It makes me gag and burp. I figured that out several years ago when I was looking into natural ways to prevent migraine headaches. But if you like fish or fish oil, more power to you.

Something I’ve noticed is that if I eat a lot of fatty meat in a month (like sausage), or if I don’t eat enough vegetables, I have more pre-menstrual breast pain. So while I’m not afraid of eating fat, and while I get a lot of fat from my nuts and seeds, I have noticed that the fatty meat affects my body. So watch how various animal products affect you, and cut down on the ones that most noticeably make your symptoms worse.

The upside to all this protein is that for the first time in my life, I can grow long, strong nails without the help of polish. I wasn’t going for that, but it’s a nice side benefit.

Another upside to all these dietary changes (and I don’t know whether that’s the reduced sugar intake or the increased healthy fat intake or both) is that pre-menstrual breakouts have lessened. My main complaint wasn’t acne, but I did break out in the week before my period, sometimes painfully so. That happens much less now. I never would have undertaken such extensive life changes just for the acne, but it sure is a pleasant side effect.

(Full disclosure: For years I have used a topical salicylic acid lotion once a day to treat and prevent acne. I still had monthly breakouts in those years. And I also still use that lotion, even while eating differently.)

All these personal changes mean I’ve changed the way we eat as a family too. I don’t force my children to eat the unsweetened yogurt or nut butter or to stop eating cereal, but I do cook them a whole lot more eggs and beans (and sometimes eggs and beans together), and we eat a lot more fresh veggies.

I use a lot more spices in my cooking, especially garlic and onions which are good for the immune system, as I mentioned. I also use a lot of turmeric and cumin. (I adore cumin.) That’s something else that’s happened — learning to use more spices means food tastes a lot better than before. And the children have definitely noticed that.

A note about some things I haven’t done: I haven’t asked my helper to change the way she cooks. She makes us one Asian dish per day, and know she puts sugar and maybe even MSG in the chicken, and she cooks the chicken in soybean oil. I have not known how to approach this issue from a culturally appropriate standpoint. Friends who have tried to have these conversations with their helpers have often run into difficulty. So at this point I just eat the meat dish without the rice and figure I’m doing the best I can in other areas of my life.

A word about eating out: I don’t stress about this either. I just choose the best option I can find. That usually means something with either a lot of protein or a lot of vegetables, or both. For a time I found that it was best for me to take little containers of nuts everywhere I went just to be on the safe side (and because I was constantly hungry). Or I ate something with protein before I headed out to a meeting that might only serve carbohydrate-rich foods. But I stress less about it now. What I’m saying is, make the changes you can feasibly make, and celebrate your successes. Then don’t worry about the rest.

 

4. Decrease alcohol.

Why is a Christian missionary even talking about alcohol on her blog?! Well, because some missionaries drink alcohol (shocking, I know). Some of them even drink alcohol as a form of stress relief. And my readers aren’t just missionaries, either. So I really felt I should mention this one.

I had never even tasted alcohol until I was 27. I was afraid to try it, convinced even one sip would inebriate me. There are some alcohol addiction issues in my extended family that made me want to avoid it altogether. In the years since first tasting alcohol, I only ever drank wine a few times a year, and the most I ever drank was 1/8 of a cup, which felt like plenty for me. I also love a good gin and tonic, ever since a friend introduced the drink to me.

However, alcohol was never something I “needed” for stress relief. So when I explained all my symptoms to my OB-GYN friend, and she told me that the “best natural remedies are diet: avoid high salt, processed carbs, artificial sweeteners, MSG, alcohol, caffeine,” I had no trouble giving up the alcohol. I do occasionally miss the gin and tonic, but with all the sugar in it, I simply don’t want to consume it.

Other women have told me that alcohol affects their sleep. Alcohol seems to relax us and even make us feel sleepy, but it actually interferes with the deeper cycles of sleep. So if sleep is an issue for you (especially if the fatigue makes you grouchy the next day), and you consume alcohol from time to time, you might consider stopping.

 

5. Decrease Dairy

A lot of sources claimed that dairy exacerbates PMS (specifically breast tenderness and acne) and recommend that people keep it to a minimum. I did not end up cutting out dairy. I love the protein and probiotics in my yogurt and kefir (not to mention the taste of cheese!). I’ve gotten such great results from all the other changes I made that I never made this one.

But I do have to watch the cheese. I usually eat cheese about once a week (it’s kind of pricey here), and I’ve noticed that, similar to the fatty meats, if I eat more cheese than that, I do notice more breast tenderness that month. So I can do yogurt and kefir daily, but not cheese. The moral of the dairy story? Find what works for you, and do that.

I think that’s enough information for now. Here’s a summary of the potential dietary changes I discussed and their potential benefits:

  1. Decrease caffeine (to reduce anxiety, breast pain, and sleep issues).
  2. Decrease sugar and refined carbs (to reduce mood swings, acne, and infections).
  3. Increase protein, healthy fats, and fiber (to reduce mood swings and anxiety).
  4. Decrease alcohol (to improve sleep quality).
  5. Decrease dairy (to reduce breast pain and acne).

 

Part 2: Potential Supplements

Part 3: Movement and Rest

Part 4: Tracking Your Cycles

A Book Giveaway!

We’re doing our first book giveaway over on the trotters41 Facebook page!

**A Book Giveaway!**

Elizabeth and I would like to gift a couple of folks with a free Kindle version of our new book, Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker.

Serving Well has over 100 chapters that cover everything from how to prepare for the field all the way to how to return well. It includes reflections and insights on transitioning overseas, taking care of your heart, marriage, and children well once you’re there, communicating with senders, common pitfalls, grief and loss, and what to do when things don’t go as planned.

To be entered into the drawing, either share this post to your timeline (set to public) OR tag someone in the comments below. If you tag someone, we’ll enter your name AND their name into a drawing that will happen on Saturday, August 10th. NOTE: The comments must be on this post (trotters41) for us to see them.

Have a fantastic day!
~ Jonathan & Elizabeth

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Find Serving Well on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2yCJFJr

Read more reviews: https://trotters41.com/2019/07/30/serving-well-more-reviews/
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Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief for the missions website A Life Overseas (alifeoverseas.com). She writes regularly at trotters41.com and velvetashes.com and is the author of Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More.

Jonathan Trotter spends his days providing pastoral counseling at a local counseling center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. In addition to writing regularly for A Life Overseas, he has written for the IMB (International Mission Board), Velvet Ashes, The Huffington Post, and The Gottman Institute.

Jonathan and Elizabeth have lived in Southeast Asia since 2012. Before that they worked in local churches in the United States for ten years.

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Serving Well — more reviews

As our book goes out into the world, it’s been so encouraging to read about how it’s encouraging and blessing people, from the Marshall Islands to Kentucky, from India to Central America.

Find Serving Well on Amazon. And if you’re interested in bulk orders (5 or more) for your ministry, church, or organization, contact our publisher. Note, our publisher has partner companies in the UK and Australia for local printing/shipping needs.

Read more about Serving Well here.

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