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Relax, just do it…

The life of inner peace, being harmonious and without stress, is the easiest type of existence.

Norman Vincent Peale

It’s that time of year (insert musical interlude…). No, not Christmas. The end of summer. Labor Day is swiftly approaching, the kids are heading back to school, parents are freaking out over school supplies in the middle of the aisles at Wal-Mart while simultaneously celebrating a return to normalcy.

For some of us, thoughts of autumn brings to mind cozy evenings by a bonfire, a certain crispness in the air, and Friday night football games under the big lights.

As a teacher, I love all of these things. Autumn is actually my favorite time of year. But there is no doubt that the shift out of summer’s fun into the run-of-the-mill stress of ‘regular’ life creates stress.

Why is it that so many of us feel so stressed? All. The. Time. 

I know Jeff is always telling me that I say ‘yes’ too often. I end up running from one event to another, one friend to another, and I don’t really spend that time being present. Honestly? I’m missing out. 

One of the things I love the most about our vacations is that we both disconnect from pretty much everything but where we are at and each other. We take time, and that drops our stress levels.

Too bad we can’t all live lives of luxury and leisure! (Say that 10 times fast!)

With that in mind, we decided to look at ways to de-stress that do not involve thousands of dollars and dropping off the grid.

Disclaimer here: Be sure to consult your doctor before trying any new health or fitness regime!

Chocolate (oooh! ahhh!)

Diet is important. And I don’t mean whatever deprive yourself of a food group trend that’s going around. Diet – as in, what you put in your body – has a huge impact on stress. Eating a continual train of foods high in saturated fat and low in good stuff wears the body down and deprives us of the building blocks we need to be healthy (which does not translate to thin, people!).

Fortunately, a recent report by NBC News cited studies linking 1 ½ oz. of dark chocolate per day to a decrease in levels of cortisone, which can help your body cope with stress. The report also pointed out that chocolate helps us cope with the emotional impact of stress, too. Hel-lo Reeses Cups!

Unfortunately, I…we…cannot (should not?) eat all the chocolate we might crave on any given (every given?) day. Too much sugar can send your body out of whack, which has the opposite effect we’re going for.

Wine

W.C. Fields once quipped, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” And there are few things quite as satisfying as cutting your stress over a glass of wine with your peeps.

Dr. Kashmira Bhadha, medical director for women’s cardiac health at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines agreed in an interview with the Sun Sentinel. “There are absolutely benefits in terms of stress relief,” she cautioned, “but only if you’re drinking in extreme moderation.”

I’m betting she’s referring to the fact that, while tossing back a few feels great at the time, next-day regrets and that blech! feeling that follows a one-too-many night out increases stress rather than reducing it. Not that Jeff or I would know what that feels like. Nope. Not at all.

Exercise

Given that we cannot eat all of the chocolate or drink all of the wine we would like, exercise has become the go-to stress reducer in our household.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America points out that, when stress impacts the mind, the body is generally impacted as well. It stands to reason that the reverse is true, as well. “Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.”

In fact, the American Heart Association points out that exercise can:

  1. release stress and calm you  
  2. improve your mood and help you think clearly 
  3. give you more energy and stamina 
  4. improve your quality of sleep

And that’s on top of all the other health benefits associated with exercise!

I have been known to strap on gloves and pound away at a boxing bag. Strength training lets me clear my mind in order to focus on the task at hand as I push myself and the stress flows away.  Jeff likes to jog, finding a steady pace around our local park gives him a sense of peace and accomplishment.

But the gym doesn’t have to be your only mind-body connection.

Yoga

The Mayo Clinic describes yoga as “a mind-body practice that combines physical poses, controlled breathing, and meditation or relaxation.” As you work your way through a session, you may find that you reduce stress, as yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure as well as lower your heart rate. 

Far from being the purview of the young, the young-at-heart are finding appeal in the low impact nature of yoga poses, as well as the increase in fitness, range of motion, and the potential to help with chronic health conditions.

In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics found that yoga is growing in popularity among U.S. adults, with the number of participants rising from 9.5% in 2012 to 14.3% in 2017.

Classes, retreats, and videos are popping up everywhere. Festivals can be found from New York to California, and allow participants to try everything from simple yoga flows to BUTI yoga, which blends yoga with plyometrics and elements of tribal dance. Our gym offers BUTI, and I have to say that Meg has kicked my butt on more than one occasion!

Yoga is great for training your brain to shut out the noise. I especially love the meditative quality of the shavasana – also known as the Corpse Pose (eek!) – that ends many hatha yoga sessions.

Meditation

The same NCHS study that looked at yoga, also reported that the number of Americans who meditate more than tripled between 2012 and 2017, climbing from 4.1% to 14.2%. 

If you’re like us, you were probably raised in an era that associated meditation with hippies and tie-dye, times have clearly changed. Academic publisher Sage, Inc., reports that meditation, or “mindfulness, generated $1.2 billion in revenue last year. 

In fact, 4 in 10 adults in the United States say they meditate at least weekly, and major companies including Google, Apple, General Mills, Goldman Sachs and Aetna have adopted meditation programs for their employees. And if money makes you stop and take notice, the meditation industry has attracted $260 million in investments since 2012.” (Kim, Hannah H. “The Meditation Industry”. 29 Jan 2018. 18 Aug 2019. Sage Publishing Inc.)

So how do you go about meditating? I have trouble counting backwards from 100 when I’m trying to fall asleep! My whole problem is that my mind does not shut off. Ever. I keep thinking that if I knew how to shut off my brain, I wouldn’t need to meditate. Right?

Lover of all things technological that I am, I had to wonder – is there an app for that?

As a matter of fact, there is!

This relaxing interlude is brought to you by TECHNOLOGY

There are at least a dozen different ‘relaxation’ apps available for iPhone and Android. They range from the digital adult coloring book ‘Colorfy’ to the do-it-yourself ‘Acupressure: Heal Yourself’ app. Still others, such as ‘Sleep Time’, help you manage the amount and quality of the sleep you get.

Meditation apps seem to be taking over, however.

Calm

Calm was voted Apple App of the Year 2017 and was the Google Play Editor’s Choice in  2018.

Calm App Menu

According to its web site, Calm is the #1 app for meditation and mindfulness. There are “100+ guided meditations to help you manage anxiety, lower stress and sleep better.”

Designers claim that Calm is a great option for anyone new to meditation – much less to using an app to de-stress. But there are also program options for more advanced users.

What do you get?

The free trial gives you unlimited access to Calm Premium, which includes a “Daily Calm” every day, 100+ guided meditations covering anxiety, focus, stress, sleep, relationships, etc., an ever-changing library of Sleep Stories, music tracks, “Masterclasses” taught by experts, and access to all Calm Body programs.

If you remember to cancel before the end of the trial (no pressure there), you KEEP: the timed meditation options, Day 1 of each of their multi-day meditation programs, the Breathe Bubble (which is a breathing exercise) and one sleep story.

You can also choose from free scenes with nature sounds to use during guided and unguided meditation.

It is important to point out that, if you complete the free trial and do not continue into a subscription, those free options will remain available after the free trial ends, and additional free options will be unlocked.

Calm’s Premium subscription runs $10/month or $59/year.

Breethe

Breethe is another app that markets itself toward reducing anxiety. In addition to my English teacher self being stressed by the deliberate mis-spelling, I had a hard time believing the claim that 10 minutes each day spent using the app would be enough to reduce my stress. I mean, seriously, it takes me 10 minutes just to get comfortable!

A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that the average person requires approximately 20 minutes of meditation daily to achieve effective results. I guess that 10 minutes is not out of the realm of possibility, but I’m thinking that might be a goal rather than my daily reality.

As with Calm, the Breethe app offers hundreds of daily meditations, soothing music, breathing exercises (What? No Bubble?), bedtime stories to help you sleep, and all the rest. What I’m not into is the $399 lifetime subscription cost. That alone jacks my stress level right back up.

Journey Live

This app offers a unique approach – live instructors that hold digital classes throughout the day. Developers “believe that meditation is more impactful when done with others.”  Classes run for 15 minutes, and are scheduled throughout the day. There is also an ‘on-demand’ option in case you can’t get to a scheduled class.

As with Calm and Breethe, Journey Live does offer a free trial, with subscriptions coming in at $20/month or that pesky $399 lifetime option.

Does anyone find it ironic that notifications on your phone remind you to step away from your phone in order to take a mental break? Even more, many of these apps have a competitive design where participants keep ‘streaks’ going and win ‘badges’. 

Point to ponder

According to an article by Eleanor Cummins in Popular Science magazine, Garner Bornstein, one of Breethe’s founders, says, “Part of us didn’t want to go there” but people “like to see progress.” 

And I can’t disagree. Even my Bible app tracks ‘perfect weeks’ – how many weeks I was on the app every day – and ‘streaks’ – the number of days in a row I checked in. I finally had to turn off the notifications, not wanting the pressure to mark time on the app to interfere with my focus on what I was reading.

At the end of the day…

We are all too stressed out, time-focused and too busy bouncing from one activity to another to truly enjoy way too many of those moments. No question – eating a healthier diet, working in some exercise, and trying meditation are all time-tested strategies for reducing that stress and improving our mental well-being.

But as I sit here writing this, after a crazy first day back to school? All I really want is a large glass of wine and some chocolate.

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