Cultivating Calm

We all could use a little help reminding ourselves to relax.  This seems especially true in our 24/7 world where information overload never seems to cease.  There are strident voices everywhere, all of which seem entrenched in their own particular version of truth.  We receive constant messages designed to make us fearful.  Yet we race around our lives at warp speed without really spending the time necessary to evaluate what is or is not worth our concern.  As a result it’s pretty easy to fall into a state of perpetual worry.  Even if we’re not personally affected by some of the larger dangers in the world, there are plenty of localized concerns.  No need to name them; each of you reading this has a list of your own.  It’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves in a state of chronic stress.

Maybe your own brand of stress has nothing to do with events in the news, local or otherwise.  Yet almost all of us at some point will find ourselves worried about something.  Stress is actually our body’s natural reaction to perceived threats.  It puts us on alert and releases physical reactions designed to help us address the danger, whatever it is.  There are mechanisms within our bodies that help us recognize and cope with threats to our survival.  In small short-term doses, stress can be a good thing.  Some stress can make us stronger by training our systems mentally and physically to handle discomfort.   But too much of anything can cause overload.  Then instead of adapting, the body gets thrown out of balance and many health problems can result.  In modern times, perceived threats to our survival may be more psychological than physical.  Often, if you examine your worries honestly and objectively, you will probably recognize that they are related to something that happened in the past which can’t be changed, or something that hasn’t happened yet and, in fact, my never happen.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed out we are until something happens that becomes a wake-up call.  For example, a sudden illness or injury may help us to recognize that we may need to pay more attention to how we treat ourselves.  If we’re lucky, there will be a chance to turn things around and find ways to cope.  Even for those of us who do not see ourselves as chronic stress sufferers, there are times in everyone’s life when we just need to take a time-out and release tension.

So what can you do if you find yourself all wound up in a state of anxiety? Maybe you feel like you’re lacking something you need, like time, money or control over your life.  Right now we’re entering into the holiday season which on the surface should be a time of fun and joy, of giving and receiving, festive events with family and friends.  Yet too many of us find the holiday season akin to a mine field, laden with hidden traps ready to grab us when we least expect it.

Not surprisingly, my first suggestion for relieving stress is movement.  Think you haven’t got time?  Everyone has time to get up and walk around, even if it’s only for a minute or two.  If standing too much is stressing you out, then sit in a chair and do some easy stretching.  Shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help to relax.  You can, I’m sure, come up with all kinds of excuses.  But I will contend that unless you are a medical professional in the middle of a life-saving treatment, nothing you are doing is so critical that a few minutes of break time will make a difference in the outcome.  All sorts of events may be sabotaging your usual movement routine.  But no matter where you are or who you’re with there is always time for a break.  Make it a priority.  Remind yourself that not only will you feel better, but the world is not going to fall apart as a result.

Still having trouble finding time for movement?  Try breathing.  Whether or not you realize it, you’re going to breathe anyway.  So why not try focussing on your breath for a few minutes.  Just notice.  Slow it down.  Take your inhales all the way into your belly.  Lengthen your exhales to empty completely.  Try it!  Go into another room if you need to (like the bathroom, for example).  You may be surprised to find that whatever was in your head dissolves while you focus on your breath.  It may return afterwards, but you might also find that you are less tense and better able to handle whatever it is.

Another possible strategy is to let go of expectations. A friend recently said, “Every year I tell myself that whatever gets done is fine and whatever doesn’t is fine, too.  And every year that idea goes out the window as I try too hard to do too much.”  Think about it, though.  That’s pressure that we put on ourselves.  Generally, no one else expects as much from us as we expect of ourselves. It’s fine to make plans but sometimes the best laid plans and strategies can be upended in a moment through no fault of your own.  When that happens, it may not be easy to accept a different outcome.  But when you think about it, what choice do you have?  Reality is what it is, even if we were hoping it would be different.  We can blame ourselves or someone else, but placing blame is unlikely to change the situation.  Sometimes a mistake was made that we can learn from and avoid in the future.  But even that is not always possible.  Better to focus on living with the outcome as it is, whatever it is, and moving on from there.  Sometimes you might even find that outcome leads to something even better that you could not have foreseen or anticipated.  Keep your mind open to whatever happens and you just might be surprised by the results.

There are, of course, many articles and even books full of ideas for reducing stress, but here is my final suggestion.  When faced with disappointment or anxiety, making a gratitude list is something that always works.  No matter what is going wrong, there are bound to be things that are going right.  Did that new recipe not work out so well?  Take heart – most likely no one will go hungry because of it.  Were you unable to help out at that charitable event this year?  There are people in need all year long.  Be thankful that you can be generous in a different way another time.  Did you have enough to eat today and a warm place to sleep?  Even the fact that daylight arrived when expected today and you were there to witness it is reason to be grateful.  If you really spend some time with that list, you will come up with many more things to celebrate.  When I’m tempted to regret something from the past or feel insecure about the future, it always helps me to remember that right now – in this moment – I have everything I need.  And if this moment is uncomfortable, it will pass.

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More Benefits of Mind-Body Connection

Just a short post this week to draw your attention to a couple of articles reinforcing the benefits of movement in general, and mind-body practices in particular.  Many of you probably know that as scientists learn more about brain function and how genes work, researchers have also learned that brain pathways and gene expression continue to change throughout our lifetimes.  It was once thought that brain function automatically declines as we get older.  Recent research has shown this is simply not true.  In addition, researchers are learning that the changes in gene expression brought about by mind-body practices may actually have the ability to reverse the effects of chronic stress.

A recent article in Yoga Journal , cites a study published in Frontiers of Immunology that sought to examine whether our genes actually change after engaging in mind-body practices.  The conclusion?  Engaging in these practices can actually create molecular changes that have long term effects on your health.  As quoted in the article, “ ‘Mind-body techniques like yoga or meditation are the most effective ways of reducing stress that are known to science,’ lead author Ivana Buric, a doctoral student and research assistant at Coventry University in England”.

Another article from National Public Radio (NPR) discussed a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine.  This showed that exercise in general works better at providing relief from and even preventing chronic lower back pain than a variety of commonly prescribed interventions such as back belts and shoe insoles.  According to the article “It didn’t really matter what kind of exercise — core strengthening, aerobic exercise, or flexibility and stretching.”  Dr. Tim Carey, an internist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, said that “health care providers don’t prescribe exercise nearly enough, given its effectiveness.”

So if you’re still on the fence about whether or not yoga, Pilates and other practices that connect mind and movement will help you, the evidence shows that its worth a try.  Any movement is better than no movement.  If you’re not ready for yoga or can’t find a class that works for you, try walking.  It’s simple, effective and you can do it anywhere, any time.  Just remember that if you are brand new at any movement practice, start simple and take it slow.  The point of these types of practices is to help you learn more about how your own mind and body work.  Every body is different.  So even when you’re in a class, there is no rule that requires everyone to do the same thing.  Take the time to tune into your own inner workings.  Learn what works for you.  You may be surprised to learn that you can do more than you think you can. And if you stick with it, you’ll get even better.  If you can approach any new effort with curiosity you’ll be much better off than if you let your ego take over.  Include a little self-compassion and even humor and you’ve got all the ingredients to improve your health.  Give it a try!