A 2-minute Stress Buster

When stress hits, you can feel it in your body. You might notice tightness in your chest, shallow breathing, holding the breath, tension in the shoulders or neck, or a nervous stomach. You might also notice a foggy mind or difficulty concentrating. What does your body feel like when it's stressed?

In these moments, a quick way to help the body relax and bring a little peace to the mind is through the breath. By deepening and regulating the pace of the breath, you can help stop the brain-body stress reaction. So, give yourself a quick breather! Here's a 2-minute exercise that can make a dent in stress:

  1. Find a spot where you can be alone for 2 minutes. If you're somewhere public (work or school) or a parent with kids around, it might mean going somewhere private like the bathroom and locking the door for a couple of minutes -- whatever works is perfect.
  2. Sit with both feet planted on the floor.
  3. Set the timer on your phone for 2 minutes and press start. Setting a timer allows you to check out for a couple of minutes and simply focus on the exercise without worrying about taking too long or needing to monitor the time.
  4. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. This helps quickly connect you to your body and ground you in the feeling of the breath moving in and out. 
  5. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and exhale for a count of 5. Take another deep breath and exhale for a count of 5. 
  6. Repeat this breathing pattern until the timer goes off.

Once the timer goes, take a brief moment to notice anywhere in the body that feels a little more relaxed. Maybe the shoulders are a little looser, you're able to take deeper breaths, or your mind feels a little clearer -- whatever it is that's even a little calmer, just take note. 

And that's it. A quick refresh in the middle of a busy day can make a big difference.

Feel free to adapt the length of the exercise as you'd like. Make it longer if you're able, or if you're really pressed for time, do it for just one minute to start.

Now, pat yourself on the back for helping your brain and body find a little calm!

Resolve to Connect More This Year

With the start of a new year comes the talk of resolutions and fresh starts. If you're someone who likes the challenge of resolutions or if you're someone who simply wants to lean into actions and attitudes that can positively impact your mental health, I have a suggestion: consider moving towards more connection this year. Deeper connection with others and with ourselves can have a tremendous effect on our sense of wellbeing.

Here are 3 ways to up your sense of connection and mental wellness this year:

1) Connect regularly with people (or even just one person) who lift your spirit. Make a point of regularly spending time with someone who makes your heart smile. Studies show that people who feel socially connected have stronger immune systems, report lower rates of anxiety and depression, and may even live longer. Maybe it's your niece whose smile lights up your world, a friend who encourages you and makes you laugh harder than anyone, your partner who always feels like home after a long day, a sibling or parent who knows you better than most, a co-worker who really believes in you... you get the picture. It can be anyone as long as you notice you feel better for being with them (for our purposes here, count out the friends who make you doubt yourself or leave you feeling emotionally depleted).

Schedule in time with these spirit-lifting people on a regular basis. Perhaps monthly is what works with your schedule, or maybe you're able to see them weekly. Maybe a Skype session is necessary to connect with people living far away. However you make it happen, make it happen! These are the people who will celebrate life's ups with you, make ho-hum February days brighter, and help you through life's inevitable down times as well. 

2) Connect with your body. If your goal is to run a marathon, more power to you, but don't think that connecting with your body means necessarily accomplishing extraordinary feats. A 30-minute walk, gentle yoga or stretching, playing a sport you loved playing as a kid, dancing in your living room, a bike ride (and so on) are all ways to connect more with your body and feel better for it. If you've suffered an injury or illness, you may have move differently than you used to, and that's ok! The important thing is to find something you can do to engage your muscles, your lungs, and your mind-body connection.

3) Connect with your breath. Focusing on the breath can help quiet a busy mind, reduce stress, and keep you in the present moment (giving you a reprieve from the mind's sometimes busywork over-analyzing the past or worrying about the future). Here's a simple way to focus on the breath and calm the mind:

1. Sit upright to open up the rib cage and make space for more air to enter the lungs. Let your arms sit loosely by your side or have your fingers softly touching in your lap.

2. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 counts.

3. Hold the breath in for 4 counts.

4. Exhale slowly through the mouth for 4 counts.

5. Wait 4 counts before taking another breath.

Try doing 6-8 cycles of this breathing to experience its effects.

 

You might also consider using an app (I like Headspace, MindShift, or Stop Breathe & Think) for some guided meditations that help you focus on the breath. I like guided meditations because all you have to do is push play and listen. And when your mind wanders (which it will because that's what our minds do) just gently re-direct your attention back to the voice that's playing. 

How else might you connect this year? Counselling can be a safe, non-judgmental space to reconnect with yourself and your life's goals. If you're interested in trying counselling or feel like it would help in reaching your goals or making headway in tackling life's problems, please feel free to get in touch with me. I offer free 20-minute consultations so you can see if I'm a good fit for you.

Here's to a great 2017!

Boost Your Mood with Just 20 Minutes in Nature

It's (finally!) summer in Vancouver. We live in such a beautiful city with plenty of public parks, beautiful mountains, beaches, and a peaceful shoreline surrounding us. When the sun's out in Vancouver, look outside: we've sure got it good. What better excuse to take a break from your day and get outside! You'll feel better for it too.

Research shows that just 20 minutes outside in nature each day can boost your mood.

In one study, taking a walk in nature reduced symptoms of depression for 71% of participants! 

Take a look at the infographic from Happify below (I love these!) and discover how spending time in nature can positively impact mental and physical health for you and your family.

Sure, you may not have the time (or the desire) every day to get out into the woods for a hike, but given all the green space in and around Vancouver, you more than likely have a lovely park (maybe even oceanside or lakeside) to enjoy nearby.  A quick walk after dinner, in the morning, or at lunch can make such a difference to your overall sense of wellbeing.

I spend some days working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside area. It's a very urban area, but there are some great parks only blocks away. I'll often take a 20-minute walk as part of my lunch break and boy do I feel better for it. The time in nature helps me feel more positive and gives me an energy boost (especially helpful in battling that post-lunch slump). I feel like this is one of those workday hacks that exponentially improves my quality of life. If you haven't tried making a point of this before, I encourage you to fit a bit of nature into your day. Make it work with your busy life -- break away during your workday, or bring your kids, partner, pet for an evening walk, and you'll all benefit. Get outside, enjoy nature, and feel better for it.

Happify-nature.png

Be kind... especially to yourself.

When my sister drops my nephew off at preschool, she often says to him, "Remember, make kind choices!"

I love this. Teaching our children to be gentle and considerate with others is so important, and I love that kindness is such foundational learning for little ones.

I wonder though, if we might expand this teaching to help children learn how to not only be gentle with others, but also be kind to themselves. Actually, I think we could all learn to be gentler and kinder with ourselves.

In fact, plenty of research (79 studies, to be exact, of a total of over 16,000 people from across the globe!) shows that those who practice self-kindness are actually more likely to be happy. So if you're interested in bringing a little more self-kindness into your life (and likely feeling happier for it), here are a few steps to do so.

1) Notice your inner voice. What kinds of thoughts go through your mind when you mess up or when things don't go your way? Are they critical thoughts? If so, you're not alone. Many people have a harsh inner critic who can find fault in almost any situation. If you haven't heard the term "inner critic" before, it's that voice in your head that might say when you make a mistake, "Why did you do that again? What's wrong with you? You never get this right! Why do you even bother?" Harsh stuff, right?! Maybe when you're stuck in traffic, running late for work, it says, "Late, again? Everyone at work is going to think you're a slacker. You can never get it together in the mornings." Our inner critics can be really discouraging, but we don't have to be held hostage by them. If you notice you hear that critical inner voice often, read on. 

2) Notice how you feel when that inner critic has the stage. What do you feel in body when your inner critic is forefront in your thoughts? Maybe a pit in your stomach, or a flush over your cheeks, or even a bit nauseous? These are just a few of many possible reactions. And what emotions come up? For many of us, shame, embarrassment, sadness, and discouragement are really common reactions to our inner critic. Notice how your inner critic makes you feel.

3) Now, let's take one of those situations above and flip the inner voice around. Imagine that instead of having an inner critic, you have an inner soother or an inner compassionate (maybe you want to call it your inner mamma, your inner best friend, your inner auntie -- whatever fits for you is perfect).

Take a moment to flesh out this kind voice. Think of someone in your life who provides words of solace and wisdom to you when you're feeling down. If you don't have someone like this in your life, imagine a warm, nurturing caregiver--maybe it's your grandmother who has passed away, your mom or dad when you were little, a character you saw in a movie, a friend's auntie ... you can use your imagination here.

Another way to cultivate this voice is to imagine what you would say to your best friend, or if you're a parent, imagine what you would say to your own child. How would you encourage and soothe them when they come to you feeling like their world is falling apart? 

Now, apply that kind inner voice to a situation where you really blew it. Would this person you're picturing be critical and say the sorts of things your inner critic might? What might they say instead? Perhaps something like, "Oh sweetheart, what a terrible experience. I'm so sorry you had such an awful day. Gosh, isn't that the worst? Bad days happen to us all. I know it hurts right now, but it's going to get better." That's just an example; use words that fit for you.

Notice how those kind, comforting words sit in your body when you think them and feel them. What feelings come up for you? Is this experience and feeling different than what you felt with the words the inner critic spoke? Sadness may still be there, but is there also comfort, solace, warmth? Notice if it feels better for you to comfort yourself rather than criticize yourself. 

And just like that, you've shown yourself kindness and compassion. Often a much different experience than the self-criticism we often automatically barrage ourselves with throughout the day. Sometimes we really need to treat ourselves as gently and kindly as we tell our kids to treat others.

Remember, the first step is simply to let your ears perk up when you hear that critical inner voice or feel those feelings of shame or discouragement. Ask yourself what's going through your head. You don't have to be critical of your inner critic or feel bad that you have one--we all have one! Instead, just show that critic the door and instead bring that inner soother, inner mamma, inner compassionate to mind, and let her or him speak words of comfort and encouragement. And finally, notice any shift that happens in your emotions or in the way you feel in your body. 

It takes time and practice to develop the self-kindness muscle so don't be discouraged when that inner critic keeps making an appearance--it happens to all of us, just keep at it. And if you need help getting started, shining a light on that inner critic, cultivating that compassionate voice, or going a bit deeper, counselling can be a safe place to do that. I'm here if you need me.