March 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Stress is now considered the foremost contributor to our modern chronic maladies. Recent medical research by well-known clinicians has shown that stress is a major factor in causing heart disease, cancer, and a myriad of chronic and acute diseases of today’s world.”
-Nischala Joy Devi*
Stress is a huge factor in our everyday lives – it doesn’t matter if you’re naturally a chronic worrier or if you are a yoga meditation master – stress is still there. The world is naturally stressful now – just the physical noise of modern-day life alone is enough to send your body into overdrive, but add on financial worries, career pressures, family life, terrorism & increasing societal violence in general, constantly changing technology, sedentary jobs – the list can go on and on. These factors all add to a stressful environment. And stress – both physical and mental – can lead to a whole host of problems.
While there are some things we can do to lower the stressors in our environment, unfortunately, many of these factors are now a part of everyday life and we just can’t avoid them. So what do we do? How do we avoid unavoidable stress from taking over our lives?
“Physical and mental stress accumulate. This can lead to fatigue, a drop in performance level, and a feeling of anxiety. If not checked, stress creates more serious problems and disease occurs. Mental and physical dis-ease OR well-being can be fundamentally improved by acquiring a few simple tension-lowering techniques…. While stressful events around us may not change, we can learn how to respond skillfully to life’s difficulties, maintaining our equilibrium and a sense of well-being.”*
HERE ARE 10 TIPS TO HELP YOU KEEP STRESS AT BAY AND ESTABLISH CONTROL AND BALANCE FOR YOUR OWN WELL-BEING:
1. Accept that there are many things in our lives that we can’t control.
Sometimes you have to just make yourself let go and let it be.
2. Make time to exercise.
Although this may seem like added pressure to your day, it is proven that exercise not only helps you to mentally feel better, but the more fit and strong your body is, the better it can fight stress. Activities like walking, hiking, bicycling, swimming, the gym, yoga, Zumba, etc. all help to instantly lower your stress level. Don’t feel like you have an hour or so for a “full workout”? Try to at least work in 20-30 minutes of one of these activities – you can still gain full stress-relief benefits even in a shorter amount of time.
3. Add in extra time whenever possible.
Give yourself extra time to do things. Perhaps leave a few minutes earlier or start that upcoming project a week in advance. When you are able to give yourself those few extra minutes, it takes away the stress of the impending deadline, or that unexpected traffic jam. Work is stressful enough – you don’t need to start the stress process just by trying to get there!
4. Avoid the “quick fixes.”
Things like alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and recreational drugs may seem like they help, but the effect is just a short-term mirage. They actually add to the stress level in your body and will exacerbate anxiety. Keep your use to an extreme minimum, or better yet, not at all!
5. Take a break.
Hitting a freak out level? Stop yourself and walk away. Even just a 5-10 minute break will help (Heck, even 2 minutes can help!). Take a walk. Go someplace quiet and do some deep breathing – anything to just slow you down for a moment.
6. Watch your breath.
It is amazing how much the breath affects both the body and mind. Most people today naturally take shallow, fast breaths from their chests.
“When you breathe mostly from your chest, the part of your nervous system that increases your arousal and heart rate gets stimulated. Plus, you use mostly your chest muscles to do the work. Your chest muscles are not really designed for breathing the way that certain abdominal muscles are. In instances of extreme chest breathing, people will even feel sensations of tightness or pain in the chest as these muscles get tired. On the other hand, taking deep breaths from your belly stimulates the branch of your nervous system linked to slowing the body down, resting, and relaxing.”**
Many times our inhalation is longer than the exhalation. However, long exhalations give our heart time to relax, since the heart only rests in between beats. A long, slow exhalation will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and allow you that much-needed feeling of relaxation. Not sure how to breathe with your diaphragm instead of your chest? Try this trick –
Lie flat on your back on the floor. Place a book on your stomach just under your rib cage. Take a deep breath and send all the air down to your stomach. Your stomach should expand and naturally lift the book up in the air. Slowly breathe out, allowing the book to go back down. Once you get the hang of breathing into your stomach, concentrate on slow breaths – four counts in, four counts out.
Anytime you feel your anxiety level rising, turn your attention to your breath. Is it all in your chest? Take a minute to pull a few slow breaths down into your diaphragm and you will feel an instant calming effect and a clearer mind. Try to use at least a few minutes each day to sit and just focus on breathing.
7. Eat healthy.
Regular wholesome foods allow your body to work smoothly, without the added stress of trying to process junk. Like exercise, it also allows your body to be in strong physical condition to more easily fight off the effects of stress.
8. Use imagery.
“Imagery, our inner guidance, allows us to create and experience. It is the language of the mind…. We practice positive imagery as a means to allow the mind and body to mobilize all available resources that assist in the healing process. This creates an intention that brings about positive physiological and psychological responses, such as lowering of blood pressure, boosting of immune function, clarity of mind, calming of brain waves, decreased heart rate, production of a feeling of well-being. Through positive mental imagery, signals are sent to the body to help it repair and sustain energy.”*
There are many forms of imagery, but if you use even a basic method, imagery can help calm and focus the system and make your stressors more manageable. Here’s an easy method of imagery:
Picture yourself relaxed, feeling good, full of energy. Everything is done that needs to be. Picture your body strong, healthy, healed. If you are worried about a particular task – picture it completed in your mind. “See” it done the way you want it to be – in its “perfect” state.
Our bodies heal themselves when we sleep, as do our minds. Sleep allows us to process the events of the day and the worries stuck in our heads. It allows the brain to “clean” itself and let go of everything we don’t need. Sleep heals the mind just as much as the body. Force yourself to go to bed at a decent hour every night to allow the body to recharge so you can approach the day from a calm, “clean” slate, and be stronger and ready to fight off the rest of the stressors of the day as they come.
10. Attitude adjustment.
“Fake it till you make it.” That phrase can be so annoying sometimes, but is so true. Try to keep a positive attitude. Instead of saying things like, “Nothing ever works right for me,” say, “I’m doing my best.” “This will work right.” Instead of, “I feel so tired and crappy all the time,” tell yourself, “I feel great. I am strong. I am capable. I can do this.”
It takes work to remove stress, or at least the effects of stress from our lives. There are many methods out there – some more complicated and time-consuming than others – but these few tips are ones that you can easily work into your everyday life to get started.
Deep breath in. Slow breath out.
*From The Healing Path of Yoga: Time-Honored Wisdom and Scientifically Proven Methods that Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life, by Nischala Joy Devi
**From Women Who Worry Too Much by Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D.
March 7, 2014 § 2 Comments
How is your work environment? Are your employees happy?
Healthy? Motivated? Productive?
Do you spend more time worrying about the regulations at your workplace than actually doing the important work at hand?
How’s your turnover rate?
There are ways to ensure that your work environment stays productive with satisfied employees and it can start with just a few simple steps…
Very few people start a company with the intent of creating a toxic work environment for their employees, but many people don’t realize how their actions as an administration can very quickly create this effect.
A friend was telling me about some recent changes in her workplace, and sadly, this is a story that could be from many workplaces around the country –
Her administration changed. The new team came in and made a LOT of changes before they even learned about what was really happening at the company. They fired all of the managers – including ones that would have been extremely helpful to them. They hired new people that were not really qualified or experienced enough for their new roles. They changed almost every office procedure. They “re-organized” the departments. New rules and regulations began popping up daily. They started watching computers, blocking access to many sites, monitoring emails, phone calls, etc. Micromanaging was an understated term. Laughing or anything that even remotely resembled socializing quickly became taboo. Communication was basically nonexistent. The employees had to learn about the changes either by word of mouth or when they were handed one of the written discipline slips that were suddenly becoming a regular occurrence.
Some companies do indeed need big changes. This particular one did not need many of the changes that were implemented. In fact, the changes have caused much higher inefficiency. Clients are not being properly served and client satisfaction is going down. Employee morale and motivation is at an unprecedented low. Innovation has stopped. A place that once had a building full of pleasant, smiling, productive employees who enjoyed their jobs is now a quiet and stress-filled mausoleum. Use of sick days have gone up and several employees have unfortunately seen the inside of the emergency room in the last couple of years since this change went into effect. You can feel the tension the moment you walk in the door. Everyone thought it would get better as the new administration settled in, but it just keeps getting worse…
IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS
Every workplace has its stressors, and change of any kind – even good change – can be very stressful. As an employer, sometimes you have no control over the inevitable stress in your workplace. However, you should always be aware of how things are affecting your employees.
This particular example is an extreme case (and I’ve only listed a few of the things going on there), but it is a perfect demonstration of how these things can affect your environment. You have a team of adults – over-regulating, monitoring, and stifling natural human behaviors is NOT going to go over well. Not communicating with them and only handing out confusing discipline notices without ever acknowledging the good work they do is going to only serve as motivation to NOT do their jobs. If they’re afraid that anything they do is going to get them in trouble, then they’ll just stop doing anything.
So how do you keep your workplace non-toxic?
Clear communication is key. And lighten up whenever you can! Google is consistently listed as one of Fortune’s top places to work and it is because they do NOT have a lot of crazy regulations on their employees. Their buildings look like adult playgrounds and their employees are allowed to come and go whenever they please. In addition to their everyday stress relief benefits (like nap pods, game rooms, dogs at work, free food, free massages, slides from floor to floor, bowling, etc.) they also offer many wellness and continuing ed benefits. Some are work related, but some are not. And guess what? Google is also one of the highest ranked, innovative, and productive companies around.
Granted, most workplaces can not even come close to the extent that Google goes to for their employees, and that’s ok. At the very least, take advantage of all the research Google has already completed about creating a productive work atmosphere. Every one of their employee “benefits” are based on data that they first researched, and it has all paid off.
Be sure your work environment isn’t toxic. Show your employees that you care. Even if you can’t control anything else, at the very least you can begin some form of a workplace wellness program. Give your employees the tools they need to release stress, increase their health, and boost energy and mood. Show appreciation and respect any way you can. Allow them to be adults, and you will see motivation and productivity rise, while sick days and turnover will drop.
Check in with your work environment as much as possible to keep it fresh and “clean.” The world is toxic enough, work shouldn’t be too!
“Imagine a world where most organizations were the best place to work. Imagine what we could be getting done on the planet if it were true.”
-Karen May, VP of people development, Google
June 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
I know I’ve said it before – Dance is magic. Theater is magic.
Blah Blah Blah
If you’ve never felt that feeling – that electric feeling – then I truly feel sorry for you. It is a feeling like no other that I have ever experienced. Nothing can compare to that natural high, that freedom you feel. Even a chemically induced high is just not the same.
I was lucky enough to see Billy Elliot the Musical this past weekend. There were many wonderful things about that show – I could do a whole post just on that. But I’m not going to go into the impressive transitions, the kids, the story, the symbolism of the choreography, or the general choreography of the whole show (the workings of the show was like a ballet itself!). But I do have to talk about the Swan Lake scene where Billy is dancing with his older self.
What a beautiful moment for live theater! The hair on both my arms stood on end the entire scene. I’m not even sure if I breathed until it was over. There was electricity in the whole room. I could hear and feel the reactions of the audience. I could feel the presence of the actors. But at the same time, everything was blocked out as I was transported into this dream world of Billy as he was able, for just those few minutes, to be free. Everything in his life – literally and figuratively – faded into black and he was just dancing. As he lost himself more and more into the song, his dance literally took off – sending him soaring into the sky – free as the highest bird.
I sat and I watched this thinking – wow, that’s exactly what dance, any dance, feels like – like you’re flying. Like you’re free. Nothing else matters. It’s your release. Your escape. Pure freedom. What a wonderful physical representation of a feeling that is so hard to describe. I remember the first time I was able to let go while dancing and first experienced that feeling of flying. It was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve experienced and a memory I will never forget. I’ve always believed that dancing is the purest form of communication because you don’t have to talk. And that scene in Billy Elliot was a beautiful example of that.
Thinking that scene was my big moment for the show, I sat back feeling like the entire price of my ticket was worth that one scene alone. Then, later in the show, the “Electricity” song came on. The interviewer asks Billy what it feels like to dance. And through the combined power of music and dance, he explains it once again:
“I can’t really explain it,
I haven’t got the words
It’s a feeling that you can’t control
I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are
And at the same time something makes you whole
It’s like that there’s a music playing in your ear
And I’m listening, and I’m listening, and then I disappear.
And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open, impossible to hide
And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird
Like electricity, electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I’m free, I’m free….”
Have you ever had that feeling?
That feeling like you’re suddenly flying? I think that’s a very simple and precise way of describing the Arts. What a wonderful feeling. What a way to round out not only the human experience but of humanity itself!
I can’t imagine this world without the Arts. What a sad, boring, and miserable experience it would be. I am sickened every time I hear of yet another Arts venue or program closing. I hate to think that I may someday live in a world where I might not be able to expose my own daughter to these wonderful things.
If you’ve never experienced the power of the Arts – that electricity – try it. You’ll never forget it.
If you have a chance to support an Arts program or institution, please do. Bring your children. Enroll them in a class or group. It’s important that these programs stay around. It’s critical that we have a world that allows our children to experience the full range of the human existence (and not just the bubble sheet tests they’re subjected to at school – Don’t even get me started there).
Everyone should have a chance to spread their wings and Fly….
May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last week the movement arts group New York Live Arts hosted a five-day festival dedicated to the work of one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks, a neurologist turned author whose fame stems from his ability to make medical writing digestible for a lay audience.
Sacks writes primarily about neurological cases he comes across in his practice. In his essays, he explains the scientific underpinnings of complicated and rare neurological disorders, but his pieces also read like engaging personal narratives. His patients and their experiences come alive on the page.
As a writer I’ve always wondered how Sacks managed to craft such emotionally and scientifically intricate pieces, and I think I recently came across the answer in a National Public Radio blog post dedicated to Sacks.
NPR Reporter Alva Noe writes: “A comment I heard more than once at a recent [New York Live Arts] event in New York to celebrate the life of Oliver Sacks, who turns 80 this year, is that it isn’t Sacks’ patients who are particularly interesting; it is the interest Sacks brings to them that makes them special. He has good eyes.”
He has good eyes. That comment really struck a chord with me. Not just because it shed light upon a question I’d had about Sacks, but because it speaks to something I think every writer has asked themselves at least once: am I paying enough attention?
Whether the focus is your emotions, the world around you or the world of others, writing requires attention to detail. In order to reconstruct our experiences into essays and stories that ring true to others, we have to be able to set scenes, emotional or physical, that are saturated with observations which help our readers feel as if they’re experiencing our worlds themselves.
For me, it sometimes feels like my world is no longer saturated with the kind of details my favorite authors capture in their works. But the problem is not that those details don’t exist—city streets are still as lively as Virginia Woolf described, and people are still as beautifully complicated and fickle as Hemingway depicted them—the problem is that I’ve stopped noticing, and I don’t think I’m alone.
How often have you participated in a conversation where it seems like you’re just one-upping a friend on the exhaustions scale?
“I haven’t slept in three days I’m so busy.”
“I’m so busy I can’t even remember the last time I ate!”
It seems like as a society we’ve come to a decision: busy is better. And busy means not having the time to stop and take in the little details that make life beautiful and exciting.
I don’t know when we decided that busy was the new desirable status quo but it seems like everyone has signed on, and if you’re not busy you’re somehow missing out.
After all, technology makes it so easy to stay busy. Ten minutes between doctors’ appointments? Respond to that e-mail you neglected this morning. An hour-long bus ride to visit family for the holidays? You can make a whole PowerPoint presentation from your iPad. There’s no longer any reason to not be busy.
But there’s also no longer any reason to look up from our smartphones and tablets, to look around at the world and realize there are things beyond our isolated, technology-centric worlds worth devoting our time and attention to.
Sacks was lucky in that he was able to use his work as inspiration for his art, but if he’d spent his diagnostic time looking down at e-mails from his patients instead of looking up and seeing them face-to-face, as unique parts of a bigger world with a greater purpose, I don’t think we’d have the same amazing accounts of his experiences.
To replicate experiences in a tangible way, we have to be present for those experiences. Fully present and mentally alert.
If we stop paying attention, if we stop looking up, if we no longer have “good eyes,” will we deprive ourselves of a whole new generation of literary wonders like Sacks?
We might. But we might lose even more. Philosopher John Campbell once wrote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”
If we stop looking up we can lose those essential, random, unplanned experiences of being alive—the very experiences that allow great writers like Sacks to captivate us, that allow us to gain something more from our day-to-day than just checking things off a to-do list, that make us essentially human.
Let’s start looking up again. Let’s have good eyes.
April 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words
and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers –
so many caring people in the world.”
I purposely try to stay away from the news lately. It seems like it is worse and worse each day and quite frankly, I just don’t want to hear it. I know that’s not a very responsible, adult thing to say or do, but it’s true. I don’t feel the need to constantly subject myself to all the other ever-increasing craziness in the world when I have more than enough of my own right now. Not to mention that when there is a huge tragedy, the media sensationalism gets me almost as upset as the event itself.
Yesterday’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon made my heart jump into my throat yet again this year. A swirl of emotions and reactions went through my body as this latest disaster unfolded before my eyes. First, I experienced the shock of hearing the news and the tears of sympathy for all the people affected. I feared for my family and friends that live there. Then I got mad.
Why do these crazy tragedies continue to happen at a more and more frequent pace now?
Anger and fear swelled together. As a relatively new mother, my reactions to these things have taken a different tone than they used to a few years ago. I am so angry that my daughter now has to grow up in a world like this. It is now a world of suspicion, fear, violence, security measures, dangers that I could have never even fathomed as a child growing up. We always want better for our children than what we had, but at this point, I just want her to at least have the same peace of mind I had back then. I’d be okay with that. And then the other fear hit. The mother’s fear of letting her daughter out the door in this world that seems to keep getting crazier and harder to understand. This once extremely positive person is starting to lose her faith in humanity and even in myself. What if I can’t keep my child safe? My family happy and intact? How do I keep innocence in her life for as long as possible?
But then the pig-headed, stubborn side of me takes over and says I’m not going to let these assholes take anything away from us. Somehow, my daughter is still going to grow up confident, self-reliant, strong. She is still going to experience all the wonderful things that life has to offer, and she is still going to become whatever great thing she is supposed to be and make her mark on the world for good. But I admit, each one of these incidents still make me hesitate. I still feel a little nagging fear when I send her to school or need to be away from her for a while. I hate that I now live like that. And I get angry all over again at these monsters that keep trying to terrorize the innocent people, and especially children, in our country.
Just when I start to question humanity in general, I then see all the good things that happen instantly when one of these tragedies happen. I see all the heroes that go running toward the bomb – not away – to help whoever they can help. I see a city, a country, come together in support, kindness, resources – whatever is needed. Suddenly the person next to you is not a stranger – they are family and you are now bonded in some way for life. The usual snarky Facebook posts turn to one of support, prayers, appreciation. Everyone, regardless of their proximity, suddenly becomes a little kinder, gentler, more understanding of the people around them.
Yes, there still is some good in this world. It’s sad that it takes a tragedy to be able to see it, but at least it is there, and it’s what makes all of this somewhat bearable. Mr. Rogers was right (yet again). We need to take comfort in the “helpers,” in the good that is still left in this world. These “terrorists” will not win in creating a nation of absolute fear. They may have won some small battles in hurting us, weakening us initially, but in the end, they have only made us stronger because now we will more than ever stand united.
We will fight for all the good things that we have, that we are, as a country. We will celebrate our “helpers,” our everyday heroes, and not grant these monsters the satisfaction of attention on them. We will use this as an opportunity to remember to tell, and show, all those close to us how much we love them every day. We will live each day to the fullest and treasure every moment we have. We will reach out to others. We will band together in ongoing support and compassion and hopefully stop fighting amongst ourselves. We were created as a united nation. Now is the time to show the world that we still are. We will not become a nation of fear, but a nation of strength.
Like the phoenix, we will rise above, better than ever, as one.
United we stand.
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for…
Imagine all the people living life in peace…
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
April 3, 2013 § 2 Comments
“See the Rainbows, Mama? Seeee??”
What is it that children have that always allows them to see the magic in the most seemingly ordinary things? Do they have special eyes that we slowly lose over time? Or is it merely that they have not yet become jaded as adults do, and are therefore just able to see things more clearly, more purely than we can?
My daughter constantly reminds me to “see the rainbows.” We have some beveled glass in our front door, and when the morning sun hits it just right, it casts prisms across our front hallway. I’ll never forget the day my daughter first really discovered this. She walked out front, squealed, pointed, drew in her breath, then yelled out, “See the Rainbows? See?” She came running into the kitchen, grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out. “See the Rainbows, Mama? See?” The joy and wonder on her face tugged on my heart. She continued to pull us out there all morning long. She would point to them, touch them, stick her toes in, try to sit on them, and sometimes just stand there holding my hand in wonder, saying, “See? See?” It was a perfect moment. A perfect, ordinary, normal, magical moment. A moment that I come back to again and again because it taught me something – It reminded me to always look for the magic in things. To let my daughter lead me in remembering what it’s like to have pure joy, hope, innocence, and magic. To be truly present in just one moment and to not let anything else cloud that.
Easter is often viewed by Christians as a time of rebirth and new hope. Even if you are not religious, Easter is synonymous with Spring, and Spring is most certainly a time of new life. We begin to see the plants peek their heads out through the seemingly dead ground. The birds appear once again. Sunshine feels like a long-lost friend, warm upon our face. Hope is in the air. It’s easier to be positive in the Spring. The extra light and signs of new life prove to us that summer is on its way and we are filled with fun thoughts of good things to come. If only for a brief moment, we are once again able to feel the “magic” in the air.
We need to try to remember that there is always magic in the world. Sometimes it feels like all the magic is gone. We’re often so caught in the horrible stories on the news, the stresses of work and family life, the weather, the commute, our everyday worries and anxieties and routines, that we forget to take a moment and just enjoy, well, the moment itself. There are still so many wonderful things in this world to cherish. There’s still hope for us to reach our dreams, to stretch to our true potential. There is always a reason somewhere to smile, to laugh, to enjoy one quiet breath. Somewhere deep inside of all of us is that ability to still “see the rainbows.” We may sometimes have to look a little harder to see the magic in the world, but it is still there.
This Spring, let’s hold onto that feeling of hope and rebirth, find that childlike corner of our heart (no matter how small it may have become) and try to stay positive. Live life from one joy to the next and always find a way to see the rainbows. They might sometimes be behind a cloud, but they are still always there!