Monday, December 28, 2015

End of Year Stress Reduction

I once saw a video of a grizzly bear running into a river stream to catch salmon.  It was so excited about the abundance of fish that it would catch one and rush back to shore with it, get it half eaten, and then notice another fish in the water, at which point it would drop the one it had and rush back in the water to get the next one.  Then it would do the same with the next fish and before you knew it, the bear had two or three fish going at once and was actually missing out on the full experience of eating each one because it was so distracted by wanting them all.

Reaching the end of the year can be a bit like that as we may barely get our holiday gifts open and our year-end events complete, before we see more awaiting us when the calendar turns at midnight on December 31st.

The end of the year can be peaceful and rewarding, especially if you've had a good year and have many things to be thankful for.  But it can also be very stressful as well.

Some see December 31st, not as a time for celebration, but worry and panic about what has not been finished for the year and the looming tasks pressing for attention, such as setting new goals and the coming need to file taxes and start the new year on an uncluttered note.

First things first!  It's important to finish what you're doing first so as not to miss it completely.  In other words, you can't be mindful about finishing the year if your thoughts are already "not present", but ruminating about the future.

Staying on one task at a time is not only important, it's all you can do really.  Anyone who tells you it's possible to mindfully do more than one task at a time is eating one fish and eyeing another at the same time, and missing out on both. 

Think about this.  If you spend the moments between Christmas Day and New Years Day worrying about the new year, then you miss all the moments in between.  The end of December never happens because you aren't present to experience it.

Allow yourself to enjoy the end of the year and savor the fish you have.  When the new year arrives, you'll know it, and it's then that you can go after more fish.

Thanks to Harald Deischinger for the great photo

Friday, December 25, 2015

Making a Relaxing Holiday

The Holiday season is a time for cheer and celebration, but it can also be a great time of stress for many.

On this Christmas Day you may find yourself picking up wrapping paper and looking at a house turned upside down by the joy of gift giving and visiting relatives.  That's why it's all the more important to take some time to re-energize.

Little things on this special day can help you find the energy you need to make it through the final visits, farewells and clutter clearing.  Here are some ideas:

1.  Relish that morning cup of tea or coffee by making it a mindful moment.  Focusing just on the warmth of the cup, the flavor, the visual of the steam coming up from the surface.

2.  Notice the traditional aromas around you that you may not smell again until next year.  The smell of the pine tree, candles and even seasonal foods that are only cooked this time of year.

3.  Savor your time with relatives that may not be seen again for 6 to 12 months.

4.  Don't forget to fit in your daily meditation, even if you have to fit it in just before bed or in the early morning before your guests awake.

5.  Sing holiday songs that are only fitting once every twelve months.  Put in a CD or find some of the nice music online.

6.  Savor your time off from work while it's here.  Hang out by the tree and take in the joy of your holiday decorations since they will not be up again for an entire year.

**Laugh!

Thanks to Shimelle Laine for her great holiday photo

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Using Abdominal Breathing to reduce Anxiety and Stress

One of the original blog entries for this site was on the topic of how abdominal breathing helps to reduce stress and anxiety.  You can read that blog entry here  Abdominal Breathing: Your Secret Weapon Against Symptoms of Anxiety

Because that blog was so popular, it’s clear that many people are interested in information about using abdominal breathing to help them reduce stress and anxiety, and it’s a good thing, because it works very well.

Many times people will try abdominal breathing and feel it’s either too hard, or they will judge themselves and believe they are doing it wrong.  Usually, the reason it feels difficult or wrong is because stressful breathing has become habitual at that point and most likely has replaced natural and normal breathing patterns.  You could say that the unnatural breathing has become the new normal, or at least what feels normal.  Un-learning the bad form of breathing will feel unnatural at first, even difficult, but you can become better at it with practice.

It helps to understand that the diaphragm is a muscle that sits below the rib cage and when you flex your tummy, the tight muscles push the diaphragm upward and into the bottom of your lungs, thus crowding the lower part of the lungs.  This pressure under your lungs leaves less room for air to enter, so you get less air and tend to breathe more into the upper chest, which is more like hyperventilating than really breathing in a relaxed way. 

If you relax your tummy instead, and even let it pooch out a little when you breathe in, this lowers the diaphragm and allows the lower part of the lungs to relax downward and fill with more fresh air.  This brings more oxygen into the body with every inhalation, and takes more toxic carbon dioxide out with each exhalation.  For a while, you may have to consciously work at extending your tummy each time you breathe in, and consciously push your tummy inward each time you exhale, just until this starts to become more natural and the new normal.   

Take it slow and be patient with yourself.  Most of all, stop believing those false social norms that say you should suck or hold your gut in or try to flatten your stomach by holding your breath or flexing your stomach all the time.  Those false beliefs only make you more tense and perpetuate even more unhealthy breathing.

Thanks to Robert Couse-Baker for the great photo - The Winds of Spring

Using Feng Shui to reduce Stress

According to the ancient art of Feng Shui,  how you arrange your living environment and how it works in harmony with you, has a strong influence on your level of well-being and relaxation.  This can range from the selection of a building's location, to the design of a garden or living room.  Everything from the choice of color, to the location where an item is placed may have an influence on the overall energy in a given room, building, office, or landscape.

Basically, it’s all about how you arrange, position, and design your surroundings and the things in the environment in which you dwell.  The belief is that you can improve the flow of energy in these environments and bring balance and harmony into the areas in which you spend time, which subsequently then influences other areas of your life—like relationships, health, and professional success.

There are some key things you can try that target stress reduction and ways to enhance relaxation.  For instance, it has been found that using the color blue in your room design can lead to a soothing feeling for occupants.  In addition, including aspects of nature results in a feeling of relaxation, such as including plants, water fountains, or canvas wall hangings of nature.

Be sure to de-clutter your rooms and put things away as the clutter is only a reflection of a mind cluttered with thoughts and worry.  Using candle or natural incense is very powerful as many scents have a strong influence on mood, memory, and thought.

When it comes to relaxation, your environment should be arranged so as to bring about a quiet and peaceful setting for everything from reading to meditation.  You will definitely see a difference in your level of stress and worry when you take the time to be mindful about arranging your surroundings.

Thanks to Tanaka Juuyho for the photo - Japanese traditional style house

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Biofeedback for Stress and Anxiety


Biofeedback has been around a long time and is a great way to become more aware of how your body reacts to stress and anxiety.  It also helps you discover what you can do to train your body to respond differently and in ways that are less stressful for both your body and mind.

When you are learning Biofeedback, you are hooked up to various sensors—such as a sensor to measure perspiration, or a sensor to measure muscle activity—that then feed this information back to recording or measuring devices that you can see or hear.  These devices let you know how you are doing and can be viewed on a computer screen or light, or perhaps via an auditory response like a tone or other sound.  Many times the feedback might just be a number to let you know how high or low, good or bad, strong or weak a signal is.

One example of biofeedback is to have a headband of electrodes placed on the forehead that measures the muscle activity in the face.  This is a great method for discovering if you hold tension in your facial muscles and can help you realize subtle things, like that you squint your eyes when you are thinking too hard, or it may pick up on activity that allows you to know that you clench your teeth when you are asked about work, which could explain the tension you keep having in your jaw or the headache you keep coming home with each night.

Once the biofeedback information is known, then you have data to help you zero in on specific relaxation techniques that can be used to remedy the problem.  For instance, if you discover that you clench your jaw, you can begin practicing activities during your day that help you stay aware of your jaw clenching and how to release the tension there frequently and repeatedly throughout your day.

There are biofeedback counselors across the nation who are trained to help you with your stress and anxiety.  Some can be found via the "practitioners" link through The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Inc., or you can find a number of devices to monitor your own biofeedback by doing a Google search for "biofeedback home units". 

Gaining insight into the way your body might be unconsciously reacting to stress is extremely helpful in knowing what steps can be taken to remedy the problem.

Thanks to Faraz Kahn for the above image - Biofeedback

Friday, October 30, 2015

Reading for Relaxation


It is well known that many people can’t seem to shut the lights off and go to sleep at night unless they’ve first sat back and relaxed with a good book.  Something about that down time helps to get the body calm and in “sleep mode”.  But the calming results from reading are not just for bedtime.  Taking a good book with you on your lunch break, while passing the time at the library, or just sitting at the park, is a great way to settle the body down and relax.

The entire process of reading a good book requires that we slow down physically, hold still, and settle the body into a relaxed position.  As we read, our heart rate begins to slow down, breathing slows and stabilizes, and muscle tension begins to relax as our attention is captured in the story line of our reading material.

In addition, the process of reading directs the mind to a point of concentration, which prevents distraction by all of the other potential worry thoughts that compete for our attention throughout the day. 

When selecting reading as your mode of relaxation, be picky of the material you choose.  There is a time and place for taking in the news of the day, or reading other business or personal information that has the potential to upset you.  But when choosing reading material for your relaxation time, be sure it is something you enjoy.  A novel, a magazine of special interest, or poetry if that is what relaxes you the most.  What matters is that it's material that captures your mind and soul.  

Thanks to Nadine Heidirch for the great photo - Reading

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Reducing Stress with Mantra Meditation


Meditation is a way of clearing the mind by focusing one's attention on a single thing.  There are many forms of meditation, such as seated meditation, standing meditation, walking meditation, visualization, and chanting meditations.   

Mantra Meditation is a form of meditation that uses the power of words to direct the mind to one single point where the use of a key word, or words, helps the individual to focus on a specific issue, topic, or area of personal growth.  The word, or words, can be thought of internally, or chanted externally, depending on the preference of the person meditating.

An example of Mantra Meditation, which was described by Thich Nhat Hanh, is to think or say the word "calm" while inhaling during meditation, and then think or say the word "smile" while exhaling.  Another mantra that can be used while doing your seated meditation, or throughout one's day while driving or working, is to repeat to yourself, "I am calm and peaceful".  

One of the most well known and most ancient forms of Mantra Meditation is to chant, say, or think the word "Om" while meditating.   Om is considered to be one of the most sacred mantras and is frequently used at the beginning of other sacred prayers or mantras, such as Om mani padme hum, a well known mantra used in Hindu and Buddhist prayer and meditation.

The great thing about using Mantra Meditation is that you can customize it to your personal needs.  For instance, if you are working on building your self esteem, you can meditate while focusing on the phrase, "I value myself.  I value others.  I value the world".  Or if you are working on your own anger management you can use a metta meditation which goes something like this:  "May all beings be happy.  May I be happy.  May all beings be peaceful.  May I be peaceful.  May all being be free.  May I be free", etc.  You get the picture.

Mantra meditation is very powerful.  One of the most powerful things it does is keep you from running the usual flow of negative thoughts that may traditionally run through your mind.  It's a very conscious and intentional practice and with time you can get very good at it.

Thanks to Hartwig HKD for the great photo - Amitabha 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Qigong for Stress Reduction


Two things that have always helped stress and anxiety are exercise and relaxation.  So to find something that has a combination of both is quite a treat.  

Qigong is a form of Chinese mind/body exercise that traces back some 2500 years (although some records indicate much longer).  These exercises use breathing, meditation, movement, and sometimes visualization to improve the flow of “qi”.

Qi means “spirit, life energy, or breath”, and gong means “work, or working with”.  So Qigong means to work with the life energy, or to work with the breath, or spirit.

There are some classic Qigong forms like “The Eight Brocades” and “Healing Sounds”, but it’s believed that there are over 7000 different qigong exercises throughout the world.  Many have been handed down from one generation to the next and have roots that trace to the martial arts and spiritual practices of Taoism.

In his book, The Way of Qigong, Ken Cohen explains that there are different sub-areas of qigong study:  Medical Qigong, External Healing Qigong, Meditative or Spiritual Qigong and Martial Arts Qigong.  All are  simply called, Qigong.

Finding the area of Qigong that is best for you is not about fitting yourself into one of these categories, but simply finding where they fit into your needs and your intentions.  You can begin by reading a little bit about Qigong (such as the book mentioned above), or finding a local class and seeing if it resonates with your stress and anxiety reduction needs.

You can also find many videos online of various forms and practitioners.  Here is a wonderful demo of one of the many versions of the Five Animal Qigong Form, done by a practitioner of the Wudang school of study:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Up2Mnq7JSM 

Thanks to Edwin Lee for his great photo - The Opening Lotus 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Slowing Down for Stress Reduction


In today’s modern world, the pace of life seems to be getting faster and faster.  That’s why it’s important to make a point to intentionally slow down sometimes and not feel the need to always keep pace with the increasingly, unrealistic demand for speed.

Let's face it, if you accomplished the daily-recommended suggestions of nearly everything society claims to believe you should do, you'd have to give up relaxation completely.  Whether you are walking the dog, working out, brushing your teeth, or trying to fit in the recommended number of hours for sleep, it's not realistic to believe it can all fit into a single day.  Yet, we all try, and that is what contributes to the world's rising levels of human stress.

One idea for facing off with these external demands is to not let them become internal demands because, in the end, the final push to meet unrealistic demands eventually comes from ourselves.  We can blame the boss, spouse, and kids, but the lack of boundaries are actually our own.  If the "shoulds" take hold from the inside, then the ongoing drive to meet the demands of the world come from no one but ourselves.

In addition, when it comes to trying to slow your schedule down a little bit, big decisions may need to be made.  You may have to decide if you really have enough time to be a pet owner, or if the amount of time you devote to TV may perhaps need to be reduced.  Maybe you are devoting far more hours every week to your job than you are actually getting paid for, or maybe you are discovering that you are just not getting enough sleep to make it through each day.  In fact, if your schedule is so full that you find yourself getting up long before you are done resting in the morning just to keep up with tasks and events, then there may be several items that need to come off your plate in order to allow you to get the rest you need.

It's not necessary to race through life at warp speed.  Not much of any of those days can really be enjoyed or savored when you are hitting each event just lightly enough to hurriedly move on to the next thing.  Reducing unrealistic internal drives and setting healthy boundaries is a good start to finding more time in your day for relaxation.  It doesn't change overnight, but gradual progress can be made by trying one new thing each day that helps to reduce your load.

Thanks to Dennis van Zuljlekom for the great photo - Slowing Down

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Relaxation through Reflexology

One way to lower tension is through massage, but not everyone has tried a very specific type of massage called reflexology, which focuses on the feet, hands and ears.  It's not always considered a form of massage, but it is believed that by applying pressure to various reflex points in these areas, that healing is generated in organs that are associated with the specific point where pressure is being applied. 

Reflexologist are trained and skilled in knowing which specific areas to apply pressure to that will help to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and other various ailments. 

Reflexology is similar to massage, but for those who are a little more shy when it comes to getting a massage, it’s good to know that the only clothing you have to remove for reflexology is your shoes and socks!

Similar to massage, reflexology can be very relaxing and helps to reduce levels of stress and anxiety in most people.  If you are worried about being ticklish in the feet, you will be surprised to discover that with a good reflexologist it's the amount of pressure that is applied which prevents the tickling sensation.  For instance, it would feel much more irritating to have a feather brushed along the bottom of your feet, than to have someone gently hold and massage them.

Many good massage therapists are trained in reflexology, but according to the Reflexology Association of America's website, their professional members must have completed 300 hours of reflexology-only training, of which 60% must have been taken in a live classroom setting with an instructor, or they must meet this criteria via a National Certification or State license in reflexology.  Finding one of these skilled practitioners would be well worth your time.

When you are looking for one more method of relaxation and stress reduction, consider putting this method in your bag of tricks.  Reflexology has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, help with sleeping issues, reduce headache pain, and facilitate improvement of digestive disorders and back pain

Thanks to Janis Petranis for her great photo - feet

Friday, September 11, 2015

Autumn is a time for Rejuvination and Relaxation

Autumn is a favorite time of year for many people.  It's not too hot, not too cold, and is filled with an array of changing colors among the trees and plants.  It's a great time to get out and see the changing colors and go for relaxing walks in the parks, hills and mountains.

This relaxing time of year has a lot of symbolism to it.  In Greek mythology it was believed that during this time of year Hades came up from the underworld and snatched the young and beautiful Persephone away, leaving Demeter (The Mother) grieving in agony for her kidnapped daughter, and so she refused to allow things to grow.  Thus, the dying of things and the changing colors.  It was believed, however, that they worked it all out, as Hades agreed to let Persephone come back up to her normal life in the Spring time, which of course is when Demeter stops grieving and allows all the flowers and plants to bloom again.  Until then, however, the earth was thought to be grieving as things died off for the winter, not to return again until Spring.

This symbolism of Persephone (a symbolic representation of all that is young and vibrant and lively) "going away" for a time, is seen in everything from the seasonal hibernation of the bear and the seasonal depression experienced by humans, to the falling of the leaves and dormancy of the trees and plants for winter.  It's as if everything is joining in Demeter's sorrow and falling into a slump of grief for the seasonal loss of life and vibrancy.

But wait, it's not all for doom and gloom.  Some versions of the story say that Persephone eventually wanted to stay in the underworld for part of the year just to bring her brightness and liveliness to those in despair.  In the same way, this time of year allows us to go within and do a little self nurturing.  In a way, we hibernate a little bit during this time of year, just like the bears do.  We go within as it gets darker earlier and spend a little more time sleeping, curling up with a blanket, and reading a good book.  In the Fall and winter months, we humans tend to fatten up a little as we crave heavier foods, and we rest a little more as we feel tired earlier in the evening as the sun sets sooner.  Grief often mimics the symptoms of depression, but in reality, it's only temporary sorrow that our bright and sunshiny days are shortened for a time.

Walking out amongst the fallen leaves can help us stay in touch with what is happening in the natural world as the seasons change.  It helps us to remember that we are a part of that same changing world, which means we are literally and biologically changing with the seasons as they transition from one time of the year to the next.  Feeling the crunch of drying leaves under our feet puts us in touch with an element inside us that is signaling for a resting period -- a rejuvenation period just as the trees shed their leaves and pull in for the winter --not to die off, but to remain dormant until Spring. 

The old myths also include a strong focus on this being a time of year for "harvesting".  While the element of growth and life (Persephone) is gone for a time, it's a great time to harvest what you've sown and let the "planting fields" of your life rest for awhile.  It's a good time for long walks in the woods, contemplation, slowing down, and taking time to rest.  It helps to challenge those culturally implanted ideas that we should feel vibrant all year long, which goes against the natural order of things and only leads to feelings of inadequacy and failure when we naturally feel like resting for awhile.  In addition, creativity surfaces only when things have settled down a little bit.  Once we've had our good rest, new seeds will sprout again.

Thanks to Julie Falk for her great photo - Autumn Days

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Zen and the Art of Lounging

Lounging is not something that comes easily to people who are overworked, burdened with too much responsibility, or taxed for time.  For them, it’s something that feels impossible to get to and once they do get to it, it seems like a horrible waste of precious time that could be used to knock one more thing off of their long list of chores and errands.

Lounging is a way to completely let go of this constant internal push to “get things done” and/or be productive, but it’s also an art that one must learn to do--and do well.   Sofas, patio lounge chairs, hammocks, rocking chairs, are all built with lounging in mind.  If you find you don't even have lounging furniture in your environment, then you may already know that you don't take enough time to slow down and relax now and then.

To lounge well requires a special skill for finding balance between personal discipline and the need for self-care, but many people who are prone to over work and under play have a false belief that if they slow down and stretch out for some personal time to do "next-to-nothing", they will be perceived as lazy or idle and their attempts at lounging are therefore associated with feelings of guilt and shame.

In order to find balance one must work to fit a little lounging into life now and then, and perhaps a little into each day.  This vital part of human health and ongoing healthy functioning can be fit into one's morning before the noise and chaos of the day begins to get too loud and hectic, or can be saved for the evening hours where one can sprawl out in front of a good movie, or read a book before ending the day.

Like anything that is pleasant or unpleasant, things done in moderation are things done well.  If you are prone to guilt and shame for taking time to relax, or even discomfort and awkwardness whenever you sit back and put your feet up, you may have to ease yourself into some lounging a little bit at a time.  Try something simple at first like sitting down in a comfortable chair for a fifteen minute interval in which you vow to not get back up before the end of the fifteen minutes, even if you think of something you need to go do.

Other ideas for easing yourself into a little lounging now and then are things like:  soaking your feet in warm water, lying back and watching the clouds float by, sitting in a lawn chair in your yard or favorite park, or stretching out on a beach to watch the waves come in.

Don't worry, if you begin to lounge too much, you'll know it.  You'll begin to realize you are drifting too far to the others side of the balance scale, and you already know what to do when you get to that point.

Thanks to Laura D'Alessandro , freelance photographer, for her great image - Lounge

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Relaxation of Moving Meditations


When we think of meditation, most of us picture someone in a seated position, remaining very still and upright, with eyes closed (or half closed), who might perhaps be working to monitor their thoughts, which rise and fall spontaneously.  But there is another kind of meditation called moving meditation, which is woven into various types of activities, particularly relaxing exercises such as Qigong, Tai Chi and Yoga.

With this in mind, we must reconsider what “meditation” means.  Is it just sitting still and  working to monitor the thoughts as they drift in and out of the mind?  Or is meditation about trying to remain fully present in any activity--be it sitting, standing, walking or other forms of movement? 
 
Whether one is attempting to stay in the present moment by not chasing every thought that arises, or whether one is trying to simply monitor the breath moment by moment, the common denominator is that meditation is that practice and effort which helps the practitioner stay in the moment regardless of activity.  Seated meditation is a meditation that represents physical stillness (as is standing meditation practice), but mindful meditation can take place in the movement of any activity be it the gracefulness of Tai Chi, or the skillful art of archery.
 
Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong are only a couple of the various forms of moving meditations, but you don't have to know a skilled martial art in order to use mindful and moving meditation in your life.  Walking can also be done in the form of a moving meditation, as can dance, running, or any other sports activity such as golfing.  The common theme that runs through them all is your state of mind--are you fully present and aware at this moment?
 
I once heard a meditation teacher say that the only difference between skilled meditation practitioners who go about their day walking to various activities and such, and those who are not skilled, is that the skilled practitioners are aware that they are walking and moving, and the unskilled individuals are not.
 
Every moment of your day is a moment to practice mindfulness.  Movement does not mean that mindful meditation has stopped.
 
Thanks to Reed George for his great photo - Kyudo Practitioner 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Finding Serenity and Peace in the Mountains


If you are lucky enough to live near one of the great mountains of the world, you may know the serenity of getting away and into the forest where you can smell the pine and feel the touch of moss and wild flowers in the palms your hands.  The mountains are associated with peacefulness, calm streams and waterfalls, as well as silence met only by the sound of wind or wildlife.

Just looking at a mountain from far or near is breath-taking and leads one to stop and pause.  In the autumn, the mountains are splashed with color that is weaved in and out of the greenery, and it's these kinds of awe inspiring views that reminds us that this is an incredible planet, and we are a part of it.  Finding time to get up into a nearby mountain area is well worth  it, and is part of the journey toward a well-balanced life that makes room for restful and relaxing activities.

There is a tremendous amount of spiritual symbolism in the theme of mountains; from the “paths of life” that meander up to their peaks, to the lofty plateaus along the way that take one closer to the idea of “heaven”.   Stories abound of the wise hermits and mysterious sages (some of whom still exist) who dwell in caves and crevices of the mountains and who learn the wisdom of the herbs, animals and elements.  There they are believed to wait for the traveler seeking wisdom, but this is part of the rich symbolism as well, for the stories live mostly inside the minds of many who eventually (with intent and contemplation) find that the guru they are seeking has been living within them all the while.

When you begin to feel that the stress of this increasingly fast-paced world is threatening to make you forget who you are, it might be time to head to the majestic corners of the nearest mountain and spend a few hours (or an entire day) getting back in touch with your spiritual center, where you can quiet the racing mind and find that sage within you again.  While there you can take in the energy of the forest, and if you get a chance, dip your toes in some of that beautifully flowing mountain spring water.  
 
Thanks to Chris Walker for his great photo -  Sacred Mountains of Nepal 21

Monday, August 10, 2015

Relieving Stress through Stretching

Stretching out is something we often see athletes do prior to playing their sport of choice, as it is a known tool in preventing pulled muscles and other injuries.  It also improves performance and allows a wider range of motion for a wide variety of activities.

Yet, stretching is also a helpful tool in Stress Reduction because it helps us to become familiar with the difference between tension and relaxation.  The reason this is so important in Stress Management is because we can sometimes reach the point of carrying chronic stress in the body, and when that happens, we lose touch with what it feels like to release tension and regain relaxation.  The result is that when we attempt to relax, we might feel too guarded to “just let go”, and releasing tension in the muscles becomes complex or nearly impossible.  This guarded stance can lead to insomnia and muscle pain.

In a well-known relaxation technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation, individuals are trained to tighten, tense and flex various areas of the body.  They then learn to hold that tension for just a moment before letting it go in a release that relaxes the muscle and tendons completely.  For instance, tightening the fists as tight as you can, holding it, and then letting it go by relaxing the fists and letting them become limp and loose.  The strategy is not just for the purpose of stress reduction, but to train individuals to notice the difference between tension, and relaxation.

Very simple stretching exercises can be used for the same reason.  Reaching down to touch the toes, and then slowly coming back up.  Reaching up to the sky, and then lowering the arms and hands and shaking them out as if they were wet rags.  Wrinkling up the face and then releasing it into a smooth smile.  All of these methods use the same concept that Progressive Muscle Relaxation does, in that intentional tightening is followed by gentle releasing, and an awareness of the difference between the two takes place so as to train oneself how to first notice tension, and then how to release it at any given time.

Thanks to Tambako the Jaguar for the great photo Stretching lioness

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Observing the Relaxing Influence of Art


Looking at art is a very projective process.  Many times we see in the art something of a truth happening inside of us.  If angry, we see the art expressing anger.  If sad, we see sadness in it, and though it could be upsetting to have the emotions moved in so many ways from the observation of one piece of art to the next, many find it overall generally relaxing to spend time now and then just contemplating various works of art.

The medium of art could have an influence on the mood and feel of the perceiver, but it might be fair to say that the medium is only the preference, and the mood and feeling something else entirely.  Not only does art bring out mood and feeling already present in the human being, but it also has an influence that can stir and provoke one’s mood, sending it in a number of directions.  In fact, good art does just this.

Finding works of art that will intentionally move you to a state of relaxation means spending some time going and observing works of art while paying very close attention to how you feel.  If a work moves you to a contemplative and relaxed state, it may be the piece to take home or move to the office to help keep you balanced throughout your day.

Not everyone has a knack for creating beautiful art.  That’s why there are so many of us that are in this world to observe and appreciate the great art created by those who have the unique ability to speak by means of a brush stroke, carving, or other inspired medium of creative expression.  Our world is full of sculptures, paintings, carvings, and a number of other creative representations captured in time and carefully molded into elements that set, provoke, or tease out a mood from within the human being.

Thanks to Carlos for his relaxing artistic image - Another fractals experiment with Gimp

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Relaxing Sunrise / Peaceful Sunset

If your life is rushed and you are tired all of the time, chances are that it's been a long times since you've seen a sunrise or sunset.  You might either be sleeping in past the time of the gradual rising of the sun in the morning, and/or most likely rushed to do your evening activities and even if outside, might look right past the glorious colors in the sky as they change and paint themselves against the horizon.

Sitting to watch a sunrise or sunset is something that requires us to be still as we take a moment, stop the car, go out on the deck, look out the window, or just stand still long enough to watch the transition of colors as they gradually change and morph from pinks and reds and lavenders, to reds and finally blues or grays.  It's an activity that causes us to pause for a moment and just breath in the landscape, but it doesn't last forever, and therefore if our life is rushed and our mind is too busy, we miss it for another day.

As we all know, the sun is not actually "rising" or "setting"... it's simply appearing and disappearing in our awareness as the earth rotates, just like thoughts appear and disappear in our mind as we travel through our day.  As the earth rotates, the sun comes into our field of perception and lights up the sky with an array of colors which bounce off the clouds and objects around us in a way that many have called, magical.  Photographers love these times of the day because the colors become very pronounced and dynamic.

There was a time long ago when we humans slept and woke with the appearance and disappearance of the sun, so our ancestors most likely saw many more sunrises and sunsets than we do today.  In comparison, we have to make an extra effort in these modern days to put ourselves in the path of a sunrise or sunset in order to not miss it.

The fullest colors of these dynamic images in the sky last about 15 to 30 minutes, so the next time you find yourself catching a glance from the corner of your eye, see if there is a safe place to pull the car over, or somewhere to sit for a moment, or even just allow yourself five silent moments of observation from a window or other space where you can reconnect with the peacefulness of the natural rotation of the earth you are a living part of.  Let your eyes relax into the brilliant colors before you as they gently morph from one color to the next.  Let your breathing slow and your shoulders relax and try to remember who you are outside of the hustle and bustle of your contemporary daily life.

Thanks to Hartwig HKD for the great art in photography - Meditation at the Lake

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Painting your way to a Stress Free life

Art Therapy is among the many techniques used by psychotherapists and is one of the more creative.  It’s excellent for individuals who express themselves in a more nonverbal form of communication that allows them to tap into their more artistic crafts.

One of the more common types of artistic expression is painting, which is very versatile and holds many options for colorful expression in oil or water.  Through painting, the artist can tap into the depths of the human emotion and disappear into the details of the landscape or object which she or he is putting to canvas.

There can be a lot of rules to painting, but at the same time painting can also be a new way for a mature mind to let go and become a kid again.  Many people find painting to be very relaxing and a way to escape the constricted world of rules and order, and where one can freely create a depiction of reality, or a whole new creation that comes from the depths of one’s soul.

Like gardening or cooking, painting has an aspect to it that allows the creator to apply her or his own personality to the mix.  A creation takes place and gives the artist a sense of control as well as free flowing play.

You don’t have to be a pro to enjoy some playful painting.  Water and oil paint sets for beginners are fairly affordable and many come with starter canvases and perhaps even a beginner’s book to give you the basics.  Outside of that, your only task is to provide yourself with the time and space, as well as a relaxing and undisturbed environment to let the creative juices flow.

Thanks to Dean Hochman for his great photo brushes

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Relaxing Element of Water

Water is the very substance we come from, which surrounds  and holds us as we grow in the human womb.  The gentle sound of water in nature is something we often crave and long to get back to as frequently as possible. 

We find this natural element in the sound of the waterfall, the lulling drumming of a creek or river as it flows by, and even in a basic water fountain--be it decoratively set on the end of a small table, or taking up the entire corner of a room.

The relaxing lull of a water fountain can be used for meditation with its gentle flowing or trickling sound, which can help to focus the mind in order to keep it from wandering to stressful memories or worries. 

If you have the opportunity during your day to find a water source, you can sit and soak in the relaxing sound no matter where it is.  Many cities have water fountains just outside some major buildings, and some businesses have built-in court yards with fountains or ponds for people to sit by and enjoy.  In most states you can also enjoy natural water sources like creeks and rivers, as well as waterfalls and lakes, as you venture out onto trails and open spaces.

If none of these are available to you, there are an abundant number of natural water sound CD's and even videos that can be found to order and enjoy on your audio player or TV screen.  With your eyes closed you can use the power of your imagination to match the scenery in your mind's eye with the sound of the water on these recorded resources.

If you've been away from a water source for too long, you may find yourself craving the need to get away from it all and go find a nice stream to sit by in order to center your mind for a while.  It's important not to ignore this pull from nature, which calls to us now and then to remember where we come from.

Thanks to Luke Addison for his great photo Water Flow 2

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Walking Mediation for Relaxation

Going for a walk can be very relaxing.  It can also be a form of moving meditation, just like tai chi or qigong, in which you hold the mind in the present moment.

In our everyday life we may walk too fast as we hurry from place to place to complete the errands and tasks of our day.  But walking mindfully is very different.  When you walk mindfully, you are aware of your walking.  To be aware of your walking, you must be fully present.  So, trying various walking meditation exercises to strengthen your mindfulness is key.  Here are some ideas: 

First, you can synchronize your steps with the inhalation and the exhalation, and therefore place your attention on no other task.  For instance, you might inhale for 3 or four slow steps, and then exhale for three or four steps, and repeat.

Another idea is to place all of your focus on the bottom of your feet.  Notice as the heel touches the ground, then how it rolls from back to front, bending at the toes, and finally pulls off the ground.  Then follow the attention to the other foot to do the same thing, and so on.

You might also direct your attention to the present by focusing on the senses as you walk.  In other words, as you stroll along, notice what you hear, see, smell, taste in the air, and feel on your skin.  Perhaps you will notice the sound of many birds that you hadn’t noticed before, or maybe you will realize the colors around you are brilliant due to a rising or setting sun.

When you feel ready, here is an idea that might take some practice.  Fill a medium sized bowl or cup with water to the brim, and carry it with you as you walk (this may take both hands).  Think of the water as the precious substance of life for which you don’t want to spill.  As you walk, focus your attention on the bowl or cup of water, and try not to spill a drop.  This will also require that you—at the same time—watch your step, go slow, and move mindfully, all of which leads you to stay very present and attentive to your walking.

All of these exercises simply help you learn to clear your mind of unnecessary clutter, which in turn, helps you to relax and refrain from worry.

Thanks to Hartwig HKD for the great photo Zen Walk

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reducing Stress by Going for a Bike Ride


Getting out and away from paper work and computer, as well as from house work and other responsibilities of home life, can greatly reduce your stress level.  One idea for doing this is to get out for a nice old-fashioned bike ride.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on gear, buy a $2500 bike, or develop power muscles to compete in over-the-terrain competition to consider yourself a bike rider.  In fact, you can pick up a used bike at a local yard sale or thrift store and have it serviced for safety at any local bike shop, and away you can go.

The exercise related to bike riding is no different than all of the other exercise that has been shown to release endorphins and help the body loosen up, increase range of motion, and finally—in the end—to relax.   On top of that, you may find it enjoyable to get out and see your neighborhood, spend time riding with a friend, or just get out from under those artificial lights and get some healthy sunshine.

If your bike has a basket, maybe you can take along a small blanket and a book, and head for the local park where you can enjoy some time under a nice shade tree.  Many neighborhoods now have lovely bike paths that meander through winding greenbelt areas, passing ponds, creeks and picnic areas. 

Your bike ride does not have to leave you feeling like you’ve run a marathon or climbed a mountain.  Take it slow and easy and remember, you’re doing this to relax, not to prove anything or add another stressor to your life.

Thanks to Anne Worner for the great photo Parked Bike

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Breaking the Worry Habit: How putting your worry habit in check can reduce anxiety

The funny thing about worry is that it’s a habit, just like any other habit.  The good news is that habits can be broken, and you can break the worry habit if you stay conscious of your thoughts and learn to decipher between productive and non-productive worry.

Productive worry is the kind of worry that is helpful and leads to action that is necessary.  For instance, if you are worried about the condition of the tires on your car, that kind of worry may lead you to take action to check the tires and if necessary, get them replaced so you can be safe on the road.  This kind of worry leads to important and positive action, and then the worry process is done.

Non-productive worry is worry that is done simply for the purpose of worrying.  It is not productive and leads to no real action or change that solves the problem one is worrying about.  For instance, if you have already checked the tires, replaced them for the year, have already checked the air in them and they are well balanced and ready to go, then continuing to worry about them is habitual worry, and non-productive.  

Non-productive worry also has some magical thinking that comes with it that sounds something like this:  “If I just worry hard enough, then bad things won’t happen.”  But in reality, this thought makes no sense.  Logically, you can't control the outcome of things simply by worrying about them harder.

Worrying about whether or not your loved one will be safe on their travels may keep you up at night, turn your stomach inside-out, and decrease your appetite, but no matter how hard you worry about them, you can't control whether or not your loved one's travel will be safe.  So your worry would be completely non-productive and habitual.
 
Worry leads to a lot of nervous tension and anxiety, so learning to check your thoughts to see if your worry is productive or non-productive, is key in reducing your stress and anxiety.  If you find that most of your worry is non-productive, then you are simply in the habit of worrying for the purpose of worrying.  

You can begin to use something called "Thought Stopping", in which you notice when you are having non-productive worry, and then think to yourself, 'Stop!'  I won't listen."  You can even imagine to yourself the image of a STOP sign, like the one you see every day in traffic.  

In time, you can break the worry habit, but it will take the same conscious effort and diligence it takes to break any other kind of habit. 

Thanks to Alon for the photo "Worried!"

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Preparing for a Good Night’s Sleep

Being ready to sleep at bedtime is something our modern, fast-paced world doesn’t really prepare us for.   Instead, many cultures (particularly those in the West) support lifestyles that keep individuals active and awake well into the late evening and early morning hours.  Therefore, being ready to sleep is something we all may have to intentionally work at in order to get the rest we need each night.  Fortunately, there are several ways to prepare for bedtime, and many are simpler than you may realize.
 
First of all, gradually dimming your evening lighting can alter the level of melatonin in your system, which has an effect on your preparedness for sleep.  If you think about it, this makes perfect sense as the natural light on earth (the Sun) fades gradually (not at the flip of a switch) at the end of the day as it disappears behind the horizon.  However, in our modern world we turn on lights and keep ourselves up and active well beyond the disappearance of the natural lighting provided by the sun.  So gradually dimming the lighting in your home to slowly simulate the gradual setting of the sun helps to prepare you for sleep.

Also, the Japanese have known for ages that soaking in a nice warm tub of water prior to bedtime, helps to relax the body and prepare it for sleep.  See my earlier blog entry about the benefits of soaking in a warm bath and how it can help you relax and reduce stress and anxiety.  It's a great way to wind down at the end of the day or even earlier in the evening as part of your preparatory ritual to get the body and mind ready to rest.

Outside of lighting and soaking in a warm bath, it also helps to refrain from eating or drinking fluids close to bedtime.  If your body is focused on digesting foods after you go to bed, it’s less relaxed and able to sleep.  Foods can also cause an upset stomach, which leads to discomfort and an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep.  And there are two things that can go wrong whenever you drink fluids prior to "lights out".  You can end up waking in the night needing to go to the bathroom as the water is processed through the kidneys.  And, if the fluids taken in have stimulating chemicals like caffeine or sugar in them, they could increase your activity level instead of lower it, which is counter-intuitive to finding ways to slow down before its time to sleep.

The main message is to think about the hours leading up to bedtime and how they have an effect on your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and sleep well.  All of which have a direct impact on your level of stress and anxiety throughout the day.
 
Thanks to planetchopstick for the great photo Angel Sleeps
 
 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Gardening for your Health: How time in the garden serves as relaxation therapy


What better way to connect with Mother Earth and use one’s creative juices than to organize and design a garden.  Having the opportunity to nurture the growth of plants from seed to harvest can provide a great sense of accomplishment.  It’s also a nice way to relax after a disorganized day at work where perhaps not as many things are in your control.

There are T-Shirts out there that say: “Gardening is Cheaper than Therapy and you get Tomatoes”.   But there is more reward and therapy at hand for those digging in the dirt than just nice vegetables.  It can serve as a form of relaxation therapy as well as a mindful and moving meditation. 

In addition, gardens are not just for producing extra food and gorgeous flowers.  They can also serve as an artist’s canvas where themes of foliage, wood, metal and water reveal pockets of serenity in an otherwise flat landscape.  Many gardens can become a therapeutic place to get away from it all and walk among paths, sculptures, and Koi ponds created by focused and conscientious gardeners.

Those who love gardening don’t usually have to be nudged very hard to head out and enter the gate bordering their special area of carefully looked-after buds.  However, if you are not the gardening type, you can still enjoy the relaxing surroundings created by those who’ve put them together, and many of us do enjoy a nice stroll in these special and relaxing places that reflect the calmest areas of our mind.
 
Thanks to Martin Stone for the great photo West Green House Garden

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Soaking in the Tub: One more way to relax and unwind

Soaking in a warm bath has many benefits, but relaxation and unwinding are top on the list.  Intuitively, we humans just seem to be drawn to warm water and natural springs as the body knows what it needs, and it’s a good thing since soaking in warm water has traditionally been associated with both relaxation and healing.

Warm water helps the muscles relax after hard work or vigorous exercise and hot tubs are popular at various resorts where activity and exercise take place (i.e., at places like ski areas) where participants can sink into the healing properties of the water at the end of the day and encourage tired muscles to recuperate. 

Submerging in warm water is also a part of many spas and fitness centers where they are used to help relax muscles and increase flexibility, which serves to enhance healing of injuries.   These methods have been used for ages as it’s believed that hot water releases endorphins, which are our body’s natural pain killers.  Soaking in a warm bath also dilates the blood vessels, which helps to increase circulation.

For us regular-folks, soaking in a warm bath at the end of the day is just a way to unwind from the stresses of the office  or day's work.  A warm bath can be enhanced with bubbles/oils, candles, incense, or soft relaxing music, all of which can help you to let go of lingering worries and prepare to end you day with meditation and sleep.

Photo by Daniela at Witches Falls Cottages in Australia