Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Little Things

I often hear from patients that they don't have time for anything else in their busy schedules. They are usually reacting against my recommendation to do something positive and healthy for themselves, which isn't as high a priority as it should be for most of us! But what if there were really great things we could do that only took a few minutes of time? Things that could help us relax, or improve our mood, or become more present? Maybe we can create enough little moments of self-care throughout the day, that add up to a big shift in how we feel.

Here are a few of my favorite Little Things:

1. Take a deep breath. Unconscious, shallow breathing is the norm for most of us. Let's face it, we suffer from a lot of stress in modern society, and stress leads to faster breathing, a rapid heart rate, and classic fight or flight symptoms to a greater or lesser degree. The fastest way to reverse this effect is to use the body's natural relaxation response, which can be triggered by a nice deep belly breath. Close your eyes, inhale fully through your nose, and slowly exhale a big sigh through your mouth. On your next breath in, take a deep slow inhale through the nose, expanding into the area below your navel first. Exhale slowly and completely through the nose. Repeat 2-3 times, several times throughout your day, or anytime you start to feel stressed. Your body will remember this relaxed feeling, and you will be able to return to that calm anytime. Your breath is always with you!

2. Turn around negative thinking. Take a few moments to examine your thoughts. Are they pessimistic, blaming, or critical? If so, there's no doubt your mood has changed to match the words in your head! Now, really look at the thoughts. They have likely expanded into something far worse than actual reality, so try to gently nudge your inner dialogue back towards the truth. If you are focused on all the possible bad outcomes of your day, list some things that have gone right. If all you can see is bad luck and bad choices, find something for which you're grateful in your life right now. This is the simplest example of cognitive therapy, but for most of us, it is enough to remind ourselves to come back to the positive, and it only takes a few moments!

3. Come back to the present. I spend a lot of time in my head, thinking, worrying, planning, so much so that I miss things right in front of me sometimes! I am trying to add small moments of mindfulness throughout the day to remind myself to stay present. The easiest way to do this is to let go of the thoughts, and come into the physical body. Specifically, take some deep breaths and feel the sensations of your feet on the ground. Really sense the chair supporting your back, your clothing touching your skin, and the breath moving in your body. In this practice, there is no room for the past or future, only right now. I may forget again later, but it only takes a few seconds of focus to come back to the present, again and again.

4. Stand up and stretch. We are a sedentary society, and a lot of our technology creates bad posture that can lead to physical discomfort (think the hunched shoulders and head hanging forward pose in front of the computer!). Studies have shown that sitting too much is a risk to our health, so it makes sense to stand up at least once an hour. Add to that a delicious stretch, like the Mountain Breath, and feel your energy start to return, your body waking up again. To do the pose: Stand tall in Mountain Pose, with your feet hips distance apart and parallel, your shoulders directly over your hips, your hips directly over your heels. Let your head float atop your neck, with your chin slightly tucked. Allow your hands to hang heavy, straight down from your shoulders. On your next inhale, sweep your arms out and up overhead, reaching the highest point at the top of your inhale. Look up for a slight back bend if that feels comfortable, then slowly lower your arms out and down to your sides on your next exhale. Repeat 4-5 times, using the breath to guide the movement, filling every motion with your inhale or exhale. Finish standing in Mountain Pose, sensing the energy shift in your body.

All of these simple techniques have the same goal: to return to our natural state of contentment. The 4 Little Things are always available, with no special equipment required. All we need is the breath, the mind, the present moment and the body to remind ourselves that our true nature is always there for us. A few minutes a day really can make a difference!

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