Our wish for you this year is that you be well. We hope you are taking every precaution to protect yourself from COVID-19 – or hope you are on a steady path to recovery.
A silver lining of this last year is a sharpened focus on our physical and mental health, and though there is a faint light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, there are many ways to take care of ourselves while we make it through and beyond.
One of our biggest challenges as modern humans is keeping our minds, bodies, and breathing in sync. Bringing a consistently acute awareness to all three is what most mind/body practices are all about, and mastery eludes even gurus and sages. The facts are that our thoughts hold tremendous power over our bodies and our breath – and our breath has enormous influence over our bodies and our minds.
We’ve all been through an arguably unprecedented, nail-biting year with traumatic, anxiety-inducing death, destruction, delusion, and division around every corner, and depression on the horizon. Human brains just aren’t made for this – we’re great at solving short-term emergencies, but existing with extended stress is not our strong suit. Self-help isn’t a bourgeois privilege anymore; these days, it’s a basic necessity. So let’s start from the top down:
Anxiety and Stress
Chronic worry and emotional stress can trigger a host of health problems.
When the automatic physiological reaction called the “fight or flight” response is triggered – in the most primitive and the automatic areas of the human brain – your nervous system surges with adrenaline, cortisol, and sets your body on red alert. These hormones boost blood sugar and triglycerides (blood fats) for emergency fuel when under threat.
Modern threats, however, may activate disproportionate physical reactions. Thinking you’ve lost your phone, for example, is not as threatening as being chased by a tiger. But the chemical response is the same, and so is the physical response: tensed muscles, a sudden inhale, quickened heartbeat. When that super-fueled blood isn’t put to good use, unspent hormones that help you flee or fight said tiger but don’t do much when you realize your phone is in another pocket can have serious health consequences, including:
- Immune system suppression
- Digestive disorders
- Muscle tension
- Short-term memory loss
- Heart disease
The good news: The stress isn’t what makes you ill. Rather, it’s your response to it. Worrying can help – but only if it motivates you to take action to be ready for whatever comes. If you’re worried about money, for example, it can encourage you to get your finances in order or to reach out for help. This is called “defensive pessimism.” But if you’ve already done all that you can do to affect the outcome, worry won’t do much good – and may very well cause harm.
The minute you feel that blood surge, do your best to catch yourself and objectively assess the threat level. It’s not always a jungle out there.
Gratitude is the Attitude
One of the simplest, most effective ways to face a challenge is to be grateful.
Using gratitude to reframe your perception asks you to find things to be grateful for, even when – or especially when – there doesn’t seem to be much. Gratitude is a direct method to bring yourself to the present and put a pause on regretting the past or worrying about the future. Many people make this a daily practice and even maintain gratitude journals.
Dr. Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., psycho-neuro-immunology and mind/body scientist says, “Psychologists have done the research, and it turns out that gratitude is the character strength most related to wellbeing. From a mind/body perspective, this is not only medicine for the soul, but medicine for the body. It has tremendous effects on your immune system, on the balance of your hormones, on your cardiovascular system – you name it.”
Sick of staying home until the pandemic passes? Be grateful for the roof over your head. Feeling isolated? Be grateful for – and reach out to – somebody who does care and who matters. Bored by cooking yet another meal? Be grateful you’re able to put food on the table. You get the idea.
The next time you’re feeling a lack, demand that your mind identify sufficiency, even abundance. Then take at least a dozen seconds to savor it so that it goes beyond short-term memory buffers and gets stored as a longer-term emotional memory and really sinks in.
Train Your Brain
The reason that the approaches above work is this: you can use your brain to change your mind.
At the root of all this talk about mindfulness is the simple fact that we can rewire our brains. To an extent, you can rewrite your response code to update your inner alarm system or cultivate a glass-half-full outlook. By using intention and repetition, you can direct the growth of new neurons. New habits become new pathways, and old habits fade as do the old, disused pathways. In fact, you’re growing new neurons as you read this paragraph. This is called neuroplasticity.
“If you want to help yourself feel less concerned, uneasy, nervous, anxious, or traumatized – feelings and reactions that are highly affected by "reptilian," brainstem-related processes – then you need many, many repetitions of feeling safe, protected, and at ease,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist, and best-selling author. “This leaves lasting traces in the brainstem and limbic system structures that produce the first emotion, the most primal one of all: fear.”
Take Intentional Breaths
Change how you breathe to change how you feel.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle puts it simply: “If I had to recommend a daily spiritual practice for you for the next year, something that would bring about a huge boost in consciousness in you, it would be doing this simple thing… Be aware of your breathing.”
Joyous breathing is regular, deep, and slow. Anxious or angry breathing is short, fast, and shallow. Breathing slowly and deeply can de-escalate a full-blown panic attack in a matter of minutes.
Changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slow your heart rate, and stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen. This nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” mode (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates “fight or flight” responses; remember that tiger). Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down and restore your ability to think rationally.
The 4:8 Breath for Calm
Try changing the ratio of your inhale to exhale. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four and out for a count of eight through pressed lips for several rounds to start to calm your nervous system. Remember: when you feel agitated, lengthen your exhales.
Take it a step further by pausing your breaths at both the top of the exhale and the bottom of the inhale. This is called the four-part or box breath.
The 5:5 Breath for Energy
Next time you reach for another cup of java to perk up, take a deep breath instead. Shallow breathing leads to an imbalance in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, and the problem may be as simple as not getting enough oxygen circulating through your body. Virtually all of the oxygen we breathe is used by our cells to produce energy.
First, focus on your breathing as it is naturally. Then, intentionally slow your breath and deepen it slightly. Inhale for five counts, then exhale for five counts. Repeat for a minimum of 6 cycles, up to 30 cycles (about 5 minutes).
Breathe for Hair Growth
When we’re under stress, we tend to take shallower breaths than is optimal, which means taking in less oxygen. The oxygen that we do inhale goes to support the most vital organs first – the heart, lungs, and brain – and less oxygen is available for less essential parts of the body, including the hair.
While there is no single diet that works for every single body, The Journal of the American College of Cardiology makes the case that a pesco-Mediterranean approach paired with elements of intermittent fasting is a strong contender for the healthiest diet science has yet identified.
Plant-based foods – vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains – form the diet’s foundation. Fatty fish and other types of seafood, along with “unrestricted” helpings of extra-virgin olive oil, round it out along with modest helpings of dairy products, poultry, and eggs. Red meat should be eaten sparingly or avoided. Low or moderate amounts of alcohol – preferably red wine – are acceptable, but water, coffee, and tea are preferred. It is also, by the way, the best recipe for healthy hair and skin.
The diet also advocates for time-restricted eating, which calls for the day’s calories to be consumed within an 8-to-12-hour window to reduce total calories and regulate inflammation and hormones.
Cut Back on the Sugar
The average American eats about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, roughly twice the amount recommended for men and three times the recommended amount for women. As a result, sugar is the leading cause of our obesity epidemic and raises the risk of diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
“Sugar turns on the aging programs in your body,” Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco says. “The more sugar you eat, the faster you age.”
Get Out into the Wild
Forests have provided humans with food, medicine, and building materials, and sustenance and shelter for countless species over the eons. Forests function as some of the planet’s vital organs and have helped create our breathable atmosphere – and are perfect places to find solace. Sometimes it’s good to feel like a speck and get out of our own heads.
Our relationship with trees and plants is symbiotic; we inhale the oxygen they create as they absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale. So take your new breathing awareness outside and into the woods and see what happens. And while hugging people is off the table for now, trees won’t mind how close you get.
Spend Time in Motion
Many of us have been doing an awful lot of sitting these past months; it’s time to get off our butts and get ourselves in motion. A simple daily walk will do wonders for your body and mind – and get you breathing more deeply (the woodlands await you), but there are plenty of ways to move without even going outside.
Several studies show that even short bursts of exercise result in meaningful changes to fitness and metabolic health.
Qigong, a form of Tai Chi, consists of gentle, flowing movements specifically to engage the body, mind, and breath simultaneously and requires little stamina or strength. It is ideal for those with limited mobility or aging bones; you can even do it while seated.
Yoga offers a vast array of practices for people at any fitness level. The idea behind yoga’s physical practice is to encourage a deeper mind-body awareness to balance the physical body and bring clarity and focus to the mind. There are many yoga styles built on many centuries of tradition that combine a series of flowing postures with rhythmic breathing for an intense body-mind workout.
If you’re not yet comfortable going back to the gym, or yours remains closed, there’s a wealth of online workouts to choose from. Even some dance companies are offering classes led by company members. We know; working from home and working out at home may not be ideal, but to circle back, find ways to be grateful for the ways your body is able.
Massage Your Scalp
To circle back to the top, when was the last time you gave your gead a good massage? It’s the best way to stimulate the circulation of blood to the hair follicles and deliver the nutrients hair needs for healthy growth. Be careful not to do it so vigorously that you actually pull hair out, and don’t abrade your scalp with your fingernails. Some essential oils are reputed to promote blood circulation, so try adding Peppermint, Rosemary, or Jojoba oils to your massage, or look for them on ingredient lists.
In addition, scalp exercises that focus on the eyebrows can lessen scalp tension and loosen the skin to let the blood flow more freely: Lift your eyebrows as high as you can and hold for a minute or two, then relax. Furrow your eyebrows deeply, and hold that for a minute or two, then relax.
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RESOURCES TO HELP RESET YOUR WELLNESS MINDSET
• Ways to Practice Gratitude
• The Science of Neuroplasticity
•The Mind/body Connection
•Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
• A Seven-day Sugar Challenge
• An Introduction to Qigong and Tai Chi
• A Yoga Couple Online
• Learn to Dance
• The Social Life of Forests