COMFORTABLE – BI-WEEKLY PHOTO CHALLENGE – Marilyn Armstrong

Bi-Weekly Photo Challenge – Comfort

Our house, while crumbling around the edges, is very comfortable. Years ago, we gave up fashion and went for soft furniture on which we can keep our (swelling) ankles up. The dogs like it too.

Comfort on the deck

It is not fashionable. It wasn’t fashionable 20 years ago and we are not fashionable either, so it works. The dogs don’t know about fashion. As long as they can find a soft spot on which to sleep, life is good.

Comfortable dogs

It’s a rough life, but someone’s got to live it.

Bonnie and living room

Too many cushions

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Cold toes, but warm quilts!

FORGETTING EVERYTHING IN A HURRY – Marilyn Armstrong

Younger people — even people just a little bit younger, like maybe 10 years — do not understand the whole “forgetting” issue. They think memory is linked to dementia, but that’s not the same as the standard “everything vanishes in 15 seconds” kind of forgetting that overtakes us as we pass into our 70s.

I don’t forget anything forever. I don’t forget everything ever. I forget bits and pieces of things. Dates. Titles. Phone numbers. If it’s really important, I will remember it — or at least remember to look at the calendar where I no doubt wrote it down.

I forget words, then remember them a few minutes later. I forget television shows and who starred in them. I forget the author of the books I read when I was younger. I have forgotten a lot of things that happened when I was younger, probably because none of them were all that important. Turns out, 60 years later, a lot of what seemed terribly significant wasn’t.

Bits of information that once would have found a nesting place in my brain, disappear. My theory is that if it was that important, I would have written it down. Like on my Google calendar or the whiteboard on the refrigerator. When I was working, I had a head full of information. I remembered it. Accurately, too.

I can’t imagine how I remembered so many things. I couldn’t do it now. More to the point, I wouldn’t want to do it now.

Garry is older than me, so we forget stuff together.

Tonight was a good one. I turned on the oven, but I never heard the beep that tells me it reached temperature. I used to easily hear the beep. Now, I can only hear it if there’s no other noise.

There’s always noise, at least a bit. An audiobook, the television, or a computer. Dogs. Telephones. Air conditioners. Fans. Or the slight roar of the microwave.

Today, I was sure I had put that meatloaf in the oven. I figured it was probably done so I should go cook the potatoes.

Except for the oven, which was warm, it was empty. I was positive I’d put the meatloaf in there. Positive. Well, maybe not so positive because I couldn’t remember the oven beeping. If I never heard the oven, then why — when? — would I have put the meatloaf in to cook? Oops.

Our oven, after I failed to show up to tell it to really cook, eventually turned itself off. I love timers. I don’t know how I’d survive without timers. I think I used to burn a lot of meals.

Why do we forget?

First, I think we don’t need to remember the way we did when we were working. Second, we don’t really care as much about keeping everything on schedule. If we don’t go shopping when we planned on Tuesday, we’ll go on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or when we finally run out of something we absolutely need. If it isn’t a doctor we need to see or a date to meet friends for lunch, it’s not all that important. Most of my bills are paid automatically and the ones that need monthly updating show up in an email to remind me.

Most of life is on automatic or semi-automatic and that is fine. I’m delighted I don’t have the stress of constant things to do and schedules to meet.

Right now, there are indeed a lot of things to do. I’m trying to gear up what’s left of my memory to do what needs doing. It’s only for a few months. After that, I’m going to forget everything.

Life is easier that way.

One of my favorite lines is “I’ll remember it in the morning.”

But I won’t remember it in the morning. I might not remember it in 15 minutes. Or five. It’s possible I’ve already forgotten it.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 4

This is the final part of a four-part series. You can read the others here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3.


Stress

Everyday stress is a killer. Literally.

The greatest damage from stress is caused by excessive triggering of the fight-or flight (stress) response. These throw your entire system into high gear on a chemical and biological level. Your system is designed to handle no more than a few fight-or-flight responses a week.

silhouette cactus

Instead, our modern world bombards us with more than fifty such (brief) episodes each day. Over time, this unrelenting stress wears down and damages every part of your body in some way.

Your body can’t distinguish between minor, everyday stress and those which threaten life and loved ones. So we respond to all stressors as if they were charging tigers.

Moreover, your body doesn’t distinguish between physical threats which require action, and psychological threats which require thought or a verbal response — or potential threats which are worries about the future and don’t even yet (or maybe ever) exist.

Thoughts alone can trigger a full blown, physiological stress reaction throughout your body. Your body “believes” your thoughts are real.

If you think about a fight you recently had or might have, your system reacts as if you were having the fight now! The good news is you can trick your unconscious, internal systems into thinking you are sitting on the beach with a tall, cold drink in hand.

This is what gives visualization and mindfulness such power.

The key is visualizing in detail. To demonstrate the power of thoughts and images on your body, close your eyes and imagine, in vivid detail, that you are eating a lemon. Soon your mouth will begin to pucker. You will start to salivate. Your stomach will start secreting the fluids to digest a lemon. Your mind will have tricked your body into thinking you were eating a lemon.

Visualization

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This is a visualization you can tailor to your mood and whatever time you have available:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Imagine yourself in a place you love — the woods, the beach, or some place which holds special meaning for you.
  3. Make sure it’s a place where you feel secure, safe, comfortable, and happy.
  4. Focus on the details of your imagined scene.
  5. Work with each of your senses, one at a time. Focus on everything you see. Colors. Shapes. Light. Shadows.
  6. Work from the ground up.
  7. Focus on the sounds around you, including the silence.
  8. Take a few deep breaths, then tune into the smells. Allow scents to trigger positive emotions.
  9. Focus on the variety of textures around you. Imagine yourself touching the items in your environment – smooth, rough, hard, soft, and so on.
  10. Focus on any movement in the scene you have created for yourself. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean.
  11. Finally imagine doing something you love in your mental oasis. Put your feet in a lake. Ski down a mountain. Play with a pet.
  12. Continue the experience until you feel a sense of peace and well-being.

Gradually ease yourself back into your day focusing on your breath, then the sensations in the room. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and take another deep, abdominal breath.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a slightly different way to focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present decreases tension and stress. It increases your enjoyment of life. You can give your body and mind a mini-vacation from worry about the past and the future, and reduce the damage stress can do over time.

Schubert Theater boston night

You can practice mindfulness while you are doing anything from washing dishes or folding laundry, to walking upstairs or even eating.

All you need do is spend a few minutes focusing on the details and sensations of the moment. Use all of your senses, one at a time.

Mindful eating is a good exercise for beginners. For example, while eating an orange you can focus on the color and roughness of the skin and the different colors and shapes of the segments. Then focus on the feel of the rind, pulp and juice on your hands, face, lips and tongue and the sensations in your mouth, throat and stomach as you bite, chew and swallow. Then turn to the smell and the taste of each bite and how they change as you go through the process of eating. Come back to the real world slowly and focus on abdominal breathing for a few moments before you get on with your day.

Aggravation

Life is aggravating. It just is. You can’t completely eliminate everyday annoyances or anxiety, so be prepared to change how your body reacts to them. I’ve explained abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, mindful walking, visualization, and mindfulness. All these techniques can reduce the level of stress stored up in your body and mind. Using these can dramatically improve the quality of your life.

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Do what you can, whenever you can for as long as you can. Just … do something. No matter how small, anything you do will protect you and help heal your mind and body. In the process, you’ll develop skills which will serve you well in the future by allowing you to take control of your responses to the stress life inevitably brings.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 3

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 2

Last week, I talked about using controlled breathing to turn off the “Fight or Flight Response” in your body and minimize the harmful effects of stress on your body. You can build on that to reduce stress even more.

Manchaug June 2015

MIND AND BODY

Reducing stress requires mind and body relaxing together. Mental relaxation is probably harder for most people — for good reason. Most of us think all the time. More than 50,000 thoughts flash through your mind every day. Buddhists call this mindless internal monologue “Chatter” or “Monkey Mind”.

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Most “chatter” is negative. Brooding on the past, self-criticism, worries, to-do lists, and so on. This stuff has a powerful effect on your body and psyche.

A thought is reality to your body.

Worrying releases the same destructive hormones that would be released if the worried-about event were really happening. The goal of all relaxation techniques is to anchor your mind in the present, to shut out anxiety and negative thoughts, most of which are locked into the past or future.

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An intense focus on “now”, including how you are breathing, can override “Chatter.” It will give your mind a mini vacation,  a brief, therapeutic — and probably much-needed — break.

Abdominal breathing is a form of meditation. It can help alleviate symptoms of ADD, reduce fidgeting and short attention span.

When you’re in a stressed breathing pattern, you can shift to abdominal breathing. This will pretty much instantly reduce tension, focus your mind, and increase your energy level. It do the same thing to your mind if you feel yourself going into a particularly toxic session of “Monkey Mind” negativity.

VISUALIZATION

Start taking slow, steady abdominal breaths until you feel your body relax. You can start a counting exercise as you breathe. Or you can go directly into a mini visualization, as follows:

  •  Imagine, with each inhalation, you’re breathing peace, calm, and well-being in to every part of your body. With each exhalation, imagine you’re blowing the tension and negativity out.
  • Try saying “peace in” each time you inhale — and “tension out” each time you exhale.

dawn on Misty beach Ogunquit

  • Picture a giant wave of relaxation and tranquility pouring over you with each breath you take, soaking through your body from the top down as you complete inhaling and exhaling.
  • Feel the tension melt away from the muscles in your head and neck. Then feel it flow down your shoulders, arms, torso — finally your pelvis, legs and feet.
  • When a wave has saturated your body with relaxation, visualize another coming in with your next breath. You can add color and light to each wave — your favorite color or a bright light.
  • When you feel loose and mellow, refocus on your breath, then gradually transition back to your day.

It turns out that the process of learning stress control techniques can ease tension and anxiety.

Research shows that feeling helpless creates as much — or more — physiological damage as would the thing or event you fear. Feeling in control reduces stress. All by itself. If you know you can do something to help yourself cope, you won’t feel overwhelmed or helpless. Stress will have less control over you.

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An old but still relevant example is an Air Force study made during World War II. The study showed that co-pilots suffered from more stress during combat missions than pilots. Pilots were in control of the plane; co-pilots were not.

It’s reassuring to know that one of the reasons mind-body techniques work is that they enhance your sense of control over yourself — and therefore your life.

THE GAME OF CARDS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’m not a big game person. I don’t play video games. I don’t play a lot of games on my computer or phone. I like a few word puzzles and Shanghai (a form of Mahjong). But my all time favorite is the card game, Solitaire.

I play Solitaire on my phone for long periods of time, despite my ADD. I find it very soothing and absorbing. I think that’s because card games are a cherished memory from my past.

I used to play Gin Rummy all the time with my grandparents, starting when I was six or seven. Often we had a foursome with my Mom or with Grandma’s best friend and cousin, ‘Aunt’ Esther. With four of us playing, we teamed up and each team would pool their points. My grandparents scored in some odd way involving XX’s in boxes, which I never figured out. So I was never allowed to keep score.

Grandma, me and Esther when I was four

Grandma regularly accused Grandpa of cheating. I think she was right, but he was also a very good player. He could remember every card every opponent took and threw out. He turned that skill into a major strategy, playing defense as well as offense. I never played on that level. To me it was just a fun game of chance. I just picked cards and figured out how best I could fit them into my hand.

My grandparents playing cards

I remember all those hours playing cards at the kitchen table. Grandma would bring me something wonderful to eat when we stopped for a break. This is one of those memories that deserve a Hallmark card to commemorate it.

At home, my mom and I played Solitaire and Double Solitaire, which is a competitive game of Solitaire. In Double Solitaire, each person plays their own hand but all the players pool the cards they put up and build on, numerically, by suit. It’s a very fast paced game. You’re competing for who will get their cards into the suit piles first. The person with the most cards in the suit piles, wins. Sometimes everyone wins and you end up with all the players’ decks mixed together in suit piles in the center of the table. That was always a thrill!

Me and Mom when I was about fifteen

My mom and I had very spirited games. But the most fun was when we got the housekeeper and the cook (it was a different time) to play with us. Four people playing the game is only slightly organized chaos. We would yell and scream and throw cards around in a frenzy! We all had such fun!

I’ve carried my card traditions over into the next generation through my daughter, Sarah. Sarah loved to play gin with me and my mom. We also inducted her, at an early age, into our wild world of Double Solitaire. She’s 33 now and still plays. She recently found two decks of cards we used to use when we played with my mom in Sarah’s youth. We loved those cards, which is why I kept them all these years. Seeing them brought back such wonderful memories!

Sarah, Mom and me when Sarah was thirteen

So I think my love of online card games is due to my fond memories of card games past. I played different games with different family members. But the warm glow of love and good times pervades all these card related vignettes from my childhood, my adult life and my daughter’s life.

Sarah and me a few years ago

 

THE YOGA YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I taught Yoga for eight years, from 1995-2003. Those were eight very happy years. After that, I developed severe sciatica and had to stop teaching. I still miss it.

I got into Yoga in a backhanded way. In 1994, my then 14-year-old son was struggling at school with, among other things, ADHD. I was trying anything and everything, including medication, to help him get through school in one piece. I had heard that Yoga could help with focus, so I decided we should give it a try.

The class was torture for David. He couldn’t even focus enough to follow the class and fell hopelessly behind. I, on the other hand, left the class feeling that my life had changed in some significant way.

By 1995, I was serious enough to enroll in a Kripalu Center Training Program that trained and certified Yoga instructors. Most training programs involved a one month, live in commitment. I don’t know who can ever disappear from their lives for a whole month. I certainly couldn’t.

Fortunately Kripalu offered a weekend program that covered, I think six weekends, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Hours away but doable. Perfect for me.

Me with a fellow student at the Kripalu Teacher Certification Program

I loved that program and I came to love the people. There was lots of reading and home practice so my family had to do with much less of me for those six weeks. The classes and the material were very much oriented to teaching us how to teach. I’m very grateful for that because I honed my teaching skills in those classes. I found it fascinating. I also found that I was good at it.

I’ve never been a spiritual person. I’m an atheist who believes in science and hard evidence above all else. Thankfully, this class also focused on explaining the science of Yoga. There are physiological reasons why every Yoga practice actually effects your body and mind on a cellular level. I learned that the breath is how we communicate between our mind and our body. I learned how muscles stretch and change  — gradually and in conjunction with the breath.

I learned how relaxation and breathing techniques can help promote focus, centeredness, self-confidence, inner calm and a positive perspective. It’s amazing to me that monks from thousands of years ago understood this sophisticated level of biology, physiology, physics and chemistry.

Me, on the left, my mentor in the center and another Yoga teacher

I loved teaching. My students liked me too, which was very gratifying. I really felt that I changed people’s lives. I helped people deal with chronic pain and chronic stress as well as injuries and family crises. It was much more than an exercise class.

I just found out that someone who got interested in Yoga through my class, has just opened her own studio in my area. I’m going to take her class to show her my support and to see how much I influenced her Yoga and teaching style. That should be a wonderful experience for me.

I taught in a variety of venues. I taught classes in wellness Centers, Yoga Centers and Fitness Centers. I taught private classes in people’s homes for anywhere from two to four people.

My official “instructor photo” at the Fitness Edge

I liked to teach my students how to use the Yoga they learned in their daily lives. So I collected and handed out articles on the practical application of Yoga principles in everyday life. Things like how to sit at a computer so as to reduce physical and mental stress. Stretching exercises to do in the shower, on line at the supermarket or at your desk to reduce muscle tension and other forms of physical and emotional stress. How to use your breath to diffuse your automatic and damaging physiological stress reaction to a stressful situation.

I ended up creating a whole booklet for my students called “On The Go Stress Control”. In 2016 I published a four-part blog of the same title, for Serendipity.

See ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 1;  ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 2ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL –  PART 3; and ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 4.

The cover of my student manual

I understood that most people don’t have twenty minutes every day to meditate or 40 minutes every day to do Yoga. I felt that people needed to be able to incorporate simple Yoga techniques into their everyday routines. My goal was to give my students one to two-minute mini breathing or relaxation exercises to use throughout their day. This would help them deal with the 24/7 stress of modern life, which can be physically as well as mentally toxic.

I tried to get my manual published but was initially told that the subject matter was too obscure. A few years later, Yoga began to become more mainstream and I tried again to get published. This time I was told that the quick and easy Yoga and stress relief market was already glutted. I couldn’t win.

I was teaching a Yoga class on the morning of September 11, 2001. The first plane had hit before class started but it wasn’t until class was over that we learned about the second plane and about the terrorist attack. We did some extra breathing and relaxation exercises. I hope that helped my students deal with the horrific reality that was unfolding as we left class and turned on our radios and TV’s.

Front page of a marketing flyer for my Stress Control Program

Although I can’t do the physical practice of Yoga regularly anymore because of my sciatica, I still use breathing and relaxation techniques all the time. I use one to help me sleep, one to make walks more productive and less tiring and many others to help stay centered and positive. I use stretching combined with breathing to keep my muscles tension and pain-free most of the time.

Both my body and my mind are different now then they were before Yoga. I am in a much happier and healthier place in my life, in part because of my immersion in Yoga. I highly recommend it for people at any stage of life. It’s never too late to grow and change for the better. And have fun along the way.

OUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH WATER by ELLIN CURLEY

What is it about water that so many people find endlessly fascinating and soul soothing? People pay top dollar to live in homes that have a view of water – any water – ocean, lake, pond, marsh, stream. Prime vacation spots are often on, in or near the water.

I love the sound of our backyard mini waterfall. I can also sit and look at it for hours. The sound of waves lapping onto the shore have been recorded innumerable times for relaxation tapes, sleep aides and comfort for newborns.

Ogunquit sea shore seagulls

People also love the feel of water; pushing through the fingers, falling onto the hand, resisting a closed palm, like in swimming. People walk with their feet in the water at beaches and swim anywhere they can, both under the water and on top. There are a plethora of gadgets to help you play in the water, from inner tubes to noodles, paddle-boards, beach balls, etc. There are also too many water sports to even try to list.

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There is a theory that our obsession with water is rooted in our time in our mother’s womb. As fetuses, we float in the uterus in protective amniotic fluid, gently rocked as our mothers move. We may even hear the sounds of swooshing water. Which could explain the universality of humans’ love affair with water.

But it doesn’t explain why only some people seek the water in many different aspects of their lives.

Personally, we choose to live in the woods — but we own a boat. Listening to water slapping against our hull is our version of Nirvana. Our boat is big enough so we’re not close to the waterline when on-board.

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So we have an inflatable dinghy that we drive around. In that, we are as close to the water level as you can get, like in a canoe or a rowboat. I can’t resist putting my hands in the water and opening my fingers as we ride through the water. I love the sound of the little boat pushing through the water, punctuated by the percussion bursts of waves breaking against its sides.

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I don’t have any earth shattering conclusions to make. I’m sure there are research studies out there on the subject. It’s just that I’m on my boat enjoying being on the water and wondering why it is so satisfying for me. I had a swimming pool and a pond during summers growing up but no one in my family went to beaches or liked boats. We were city folks who ‘roughed it’ in the countryside of Fairfield County, CT during our summer vacations.

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So I have no family history or childhood memories to fall back on, except the pool and the pond. Maybe that, combined with my primal connection with amniotic fluid, is enough.

ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL: VISUALIZATION & MINDFULNESS – ELLIN CURLEY

ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL / PART 4

This is the final part of a four-part series. You can read the others here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3.


Stress

Everyday stress is a killer. Literally.

The greatest damage from stress is caused by excessive triggering of the fight-or flight (stress) response. These throw your entire system into high gear on a chemical and biological level. Your system is designed to handle no more than a few fight-or-flight responses a week.

silhouette cactus

Instead, our modern world bombards us with more than fifty such (brief) episodes each day. Over time, this unrelenting stress wears down and damages every part of your body in some way.

Your body can’t distinguish between minor, everyday stress and those which threaten life and loved ones. So we respond to all stressors as if they were charging tigers.

Moreover, your body doesn’t distinguish between physical threats which require action, and psychological threats which require thought or a verbal response — or potential threats which are worries about the future and don’t even yet (or maybe ever) exist.

Thoughts alone can trigger a full blown, physiological stress reaction throughout your body. Your body “believes” your thoughts are real.

If you think about a fight you recently had or might have, your system reacts as if you were having the fight now! The good news is you can trick your unconscious, internal systems into thinking you are sitting on the beach with a tall, cold drink in hand.

This is what gives visualization and mindfulness such power.

The key is visualizing in detail. To demonstrate the power of thoughts and images on your body, close your eyes and imagine, in vivid detail, that you are eating a lemon. Soon your mouth will begin to pucker. You will start to salivate. Your stomach will start secreting the fluids to digest a lemon. Your mind will have tricked your body into thinking you were eating a lemon.

Visualization

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This is a visualization you can tailor to your mood and whatever time you have available:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Imagine yourself in a place you love — the woods, the beach, or some place which holds special meaning for you.
  3. Make sure it’s a place where you feel secure, safe, comfortable, and happy.
  4. Focus on the details of your imagined scene.
  5. Work with each of your senses, one at a time. Focus on everything you see. Colors. Shapes. Light. Shadows.
  6. Work from the ground up.
  7. Focus on the sounds around you, including the silence.
  8. Take a few deep breaths, then tune into the smells. Allow scents to trigger positive emotions.
  9. Focus on the variety of textures around you. Imagine yourself touching the items in your environment – smooth, rough, hard, soft, and so on.
  10. Focus on any movement in the scene you have created for yourself. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean.
  11. Finally imagine doing something you love in your mental oasis. Put your feet in a lake. Ski down a mountain. Play with a pet.
  12. Continue the experience until you feel a sense of peace and well-being.

Gradually ease yourself back into your day focusing on your breath, then the sensations in the room. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and take another deep, abdominal breath.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a slightly different way to focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present decreases tension and stress. It increases your enjoyment of life. You can give your body and mind a mini-vacation from worry about the past and the future, and reduce the damage stress can do over time.

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You can practice mindfulness while you are doing anything from washing dishes or folding laundry, to walking upstairs or even eating.

All you need do is spend a few minutes focusing on the details and sensations of the moment. Use all of your senses, one at a time.

Mindful eating is a good exercise for beginners. For example, while eating an orange you can focus on the color and roughness of the skin and the different colors and shapes of the segments. Then focus on the feel of the rind, pulp and juice on your hands, face, lips and tongue and the sensations in your mouth, throat and stomach as you bite, chew and swallow. Then turn to the smell and the taste of each bite and how they change as you go through the process of eating. Come back to the real world slowly and focus on abdominal breathing for a few moments before you get on with your day.

Aggravation

Life is aggravating. It just is. You can’t completely eliminate everyday annoyances or anxiety, so be prepared to change how your body reacts to them. I’ve explained abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, mindful walking, visualization, and mindfulness. All these techniques can reduce the level of stress stored up in your body and mind. Using these can dramatically improve the quality of your life.

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Do what you can, whenever you can for as long as you can. Just … do something. No matter how small, anything you do will protect you and help heal your mind and body. In the process, you’ll develop skills which will serve you well in the future by allowing you to take control of your responses to the stress life inevitably brings.

ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 3 – ELLIN CURLEY

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.

ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL: PART 1 – ELLIN CURLEY

I was a Yoga teacher for eight years.

My training taught me a lot about the interrelationship between the mind and the body, on a physiological, scientifically explainable level. Using that knowledge, I compiled some quick and easy stress control techniques for my students I call “On The Go Stress Control”. These are small things you can do during your day to reduce stress and alleviate its negative consequences.

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STRESS AND YOUR BODY

Stress is a condition which causes psychological and physical damage. The most insidious and dangerous form of stress is the everyday kind. Traffic, being late, dealing with difficult situations, and other people. This kind of stuff bombards you constantly. The damage it causes is consistent and cumulative. Ironically, while there are no “quick fixes” for most things in life, there are quick fixes for stress-related symptoms. Called Relaxation Techniques, you can do them for a few minutes, any time, even during your most hectic days. These are easy to learn, pleasant to do, and are amazingly effective at curbing your body’s harmful reactions to stress.


There’s a saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” These techniques can allow you to surf in the often turbulent seas of life.

In this first piece, I’d like to concentrate on breathing, which is the simplest and most powerful of the relaxation techniques.

Breathing is important in two different ways. Breathing involves two different systems in your body – respiratory and the nervous systems. I’ll only talk about the latter here because most people already have a rudimentary understanding of the respiratory system.

Breathing forms a bridge between your body and mind. It’s the key to preventing or minimizing stress reactions. It acts as the messenger service by which the mind communicates with the body – and visa versa. Your breathing is the only thing you can consciously control which lets you turn off the stress response.

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When your mind perceives or even imagines a threat or impending stress — big or small — your breathing changes. It triggers what’s called the “Fight or Flight Response” which automatically releases over 1500 chemicals into your system to prepare you to fight for your life — or run like hell.

Heart and breathing rates increase dramatically, as does blood pressure, muscle tension, and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream, along with many other toxic reactions.

Constant stress slowly poisons you and over time, this wear and tear can injure almost every system in your body.

The problem is that this system evolved to protect early humans from infrequently real threats to life and limb. It doesn’t differentiate the more subtle stresses of modern life. The fight or flight response is on or off. There’s no dimmer switch to deal with the stressful but non life threatening situations which make up most of our lives.

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Rapid, shallow breathing triggers the alarm and initiates the survival mechanism of your body. Slow, deep breathing — called abdominal breathing — is the “all clear” signal. It turns off your body’s red alert and reverses the fight or flight sequence. It stops the release of stress hormones that initiate physical stress reactions.

When you learn to control your breathing, you also control your stress response.

Relaxation works on tension the way aspirin works on headaches. You can do breathing exercises (or other relaxation techniques) anywhere, anytime. You can do it while you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line, sorting laundry, sitting in a dentist’s chair, or at your desk. The more practice, the more effective they are and the more relaxed you will be. You can use them to deal with a specific stressful situation more calmly and rationally — without being thrown into a panic state.

ABDOMINAL BREATHING

Breathe through your nose (unless I tell you otherwise).
Put one hand on your belly, one on your chest. Start by taking a take a slow, deep breath. Feel your belly rise, then as you breathe deeper, feel your chest rise.

Feel the breath going into your throat.

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As you exhale, reverse the process. Feel your chest falling, then your belly as you tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze out that last bit of breath before you inhale again. It may take a while before this feels natural. This is the way you should be breathing all the time, to keep your system in equilibrium. Most people don’t, hence high stress levels.

COUNTING

After you’ve mastered abdominal breathing, you can go to the next level and add counting. You foster relaxation when your exhale is longer than your inhale. You energize yourself when your inhale is longer than your exhale. If you want to relax or stay calm, inhale to a slow count of 3, then exhale to a slow count of 6. Next, inhale to a slow count of 4, then exhale to a slow count of 8.Two to one is the best ratio for breathing.

Experiment until you find the count which works best for you. Continue doing it as long as you can — at least a few minutes.

If you find yourself getting sluggish during the day and need a pick-me-up, instead of grabbing an energy drink or another cup of coffee, get a shot of natural energy. Inhale to a slow count of 4, 6 or 8. Then expel your breath rapidly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound — or saying “Haaaa”. If you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, just do a quiet exhale to the count of 2, 3 or 4 while keeping the 2 to 1 ratio (if possible).

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Abdominal breathing is not only a stress relieving exercise. You can combine it with all the other forms of relaxation. It allows other techniques to work and can help you fall asleep, even if you have insomnia.

In subsequent pieces I’ll teach you other techniques, like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Visualization, and Mindful Walking.