BREATHE

 
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Whether or not you are breathing is a deciding factor as to whether or not you are alive. Breath is life. Your breath works as a part of an automatic response within your body, meaning, you will breathe whether or not you are thinking about it. The cool thing is, if you bring your breath into your conscious awareness and under your conscious control, you create the opportunity to control your nervous system.

The pace, rhythm and direction of your breath all directly point to your mood state, mental state and can trigger your nervous system towards causing stress or a state of relaxation within your nervous system. There are two major elements of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, or the mode of fight or flight or freeze and the parasympathetic nervous system, the mode of rest and digest. Ideally, unless of course there is a true emergency, we all want to live in rest and digest mode.

The importance of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system response, or remaining in rest and digest mode most of the time is well documented. You see, stress is the cause of upwards of 90% of illness. The stress response as you experience it in your mind and body can be caused by something stressful that is actually happening, or it can be caused by just by thinking about something happening that is distressing. The good news is we can do something about the latter—when the stress response is triggered by our thoughts. This something is super simple and is absolutely free of charge. This something is using your breath.

When you take ahold of your breath, you can take ahold of your whole nervous system. You can calm your mind and body and reconnect to what is true right now, rather than what is occurring in your mind that is creating a fearful, stressful response within your mind and body. Your body does not know the difference between the real or perceived stressors and will respond accordingly to either. When you find that you are catastrophizing and creating the stress response within your body, you can bring the process of breathing into your focus by slowing down each inhale and each exhale and calm your mind in the process.

Breathing diaphragmatically engages the parasympathetic nervous system response. Try this, place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. As you breathe, notice which hand is moving. You are not judging your breathing process. You are simply noticing your breath in order to improve your ability to calm your mind/body. If your hand on your chest is moving but your hand on your abdomen is not moving (meaning your chest is expanding as you inhale), you are paradoxically breathing. This type of breathing can come about by feeling as though you have to suck in your stomach all the time, and it can actually cause you to go into fight or flight mode. Yikes!

If this is how you generally breathe, don’t fret! You can change how you breathe right now! You can practice diaphragmatic breathing in order for it to become your new method of breathing. To diaphragmatically breathe, allow your abdomen to expand into your hand as you inhale and allow the hand on your chest to remain relatively still. As you exhale, draw your navel in towards your spine. Allow this to become your new pattern of breathing—abdomen expanding as you inhale, navel drawing in towards your spine as you exhale.

When you breathe in this manner you are creating an opportunity to calm your nervous system in the here and the now. By allowing your attention to rest on your breath, not in your stressful, repetitive thoughts, you ease your body of the excess cortisol and adrenaline produced by your stressful thoughts. In the moment you recognize that you are feeling stressed within your body due to a thought or perception, rather than an actual stressful occurrence, try this process of connecting with your breath. Breathe diaphragmatically, slowly and deeply. Begin to slow down each inhale and each exhale. Focus on your exhale and allow just a slight pause at the end of your exhale and at the top of your inhale. Follow your breath with your mind. Notice the sensation of your breath against your nostrils. Notice the cooling, calming impact of your breath as you inhale and the warm, soothing impact of your breath as you exhale. 

When you focus on your breath you create an opportunity to become fully engaged in the present moment, the only moment. When you are fully engaged in the present moment you create the opportunity to live your life right as it is unfolding, rather than in the anxiety of the future or wishing for a different past. Your breath is your link, it is your powerful anchor to the present moment. Use it. Be aware of it. Allow it to create the transformation of your nervous system that is possible. Be here now, be aware of your breath and allow stress to no longer rule your life, your body and your mood state.

If you’d like some guidance on how to breathe, you can listen to my 5-minute guided diaphragmatic breathing practice here in the resources section of my website. Has changing your breath changed your life? I’d love to hear how using your breath to manage stress has impacted your life for the better!

5 Natural Ways to Brighten the Winter Blues

 
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Are you feeling as though this winter will just never end? If so, you are not alone. Here in NYC it’s cold and we’ve had a lot of rainy days. So many of us can identify with the experience of having the winter blues. The winter blues often create low motivation and stagnancy, you just don’t feel like doing much or getting much done. The winter blues can feel as though your energy is zapped, causing you to not engage in many of the elements that tend to actually make you feel good. To me, it’s no surprise that many of us experience times of feeling down in the winter. After the activity and hubbub of the holidays, it’s common to feel more isolated because of the cold, the reduced daylight hours and often more dreary weather.

The good news is that there are some simple, natural strategies that you can incorporate all winter long to help you beat the winter blues. Use these strategies to create your own ray of sunshine on any given day.

1.    On Sunny Days, Expose Your Skin to Light for 10-15 Minutes

2.    Eat Naturally Mood-Lifting Foods

3.    Practice Saying “YES” to Yourself

4.    Move Your Body

5.    Start (or Maintain!) a Mindfulness Practice

1. On Sunny Days, Expose Your Skin to Light for 10-15 Minutes

This first strategy encourages receiving some sun exposure whenever it’s possible. When sunlight is exposed to our eyes and our skin, the brain is alerted to wake up and feel more energized. Exposure to sunlight can help you feel more mentally sharp and positive. Every day that the sun is shining, be sure to get outside and turn your face to the sun for about ten to fifteen minutes. If it’s not too freezing cold, you can certainly hang out in the sun even longer (although don’t overexpose without sunscreen!) If you can’t get outside, take a few moments to at least let the sun hit your eye balls. A full spectrum light box can be another option, although there is a cost associated with this tool, it does offer the full spectrum of light and helps improve mood and mental energy. 

2. Eat Naturally Mood-Lifting Foods

The second strategy has to do with improving your mood through food. The food-mood connection is super strong. Nutrients that support energy and healthy brain function all help to create the best opportunity for your mood to be in a balanced and positive space on a daily basis. When you are eating these healthy, mood supporting nutrient dense foods, factors such as the temperature, weather or time of year can feel as thought they are less of a downer! Some of the nutrients known to improve the functioning of your brain and improve mood are Omega-3 Fatty Acids, B-Vitamins, Vitamin C, Tryptophan, Vitamin K and Protein. Here is a brain power smoothie recipe that incorporates many of these nutrients in one power-packed delicious drink!

Brain Power Smoothie Recipe:

1 cup frozen or fresh blueberries
½ ripe banana
1 heaping teaspoon raw cacao powder
1 tablespoon ground flax seed
1-2 cups loosely packed fresh kale (or spinach/favorite leafy green)
1 cup plain unsweetened coconut or almond milk
1 serving unsweetened protein powder of your choice

Blend all ingredients together until smooth and enjoy!!

 
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3. Practice Saying “YES” to Yourself

During the winter months there are often many things to do, places to go and people to see. One of the most powerful things you can do for yourself is to learn to say YES to yourself, meaning that you may have to say NO to others. If you find you need to preserve your energy, do it. You do not have to do all the things all the time. When you practice saying YES to yourself—to what you want and need—you will build more energy and stamina for the things you actually do want and need to do. When you practice saying YES to YOU, you are caring for yourself. This will build feelings of empowerment to make your own decision and choices for your life. As you continue to practice saying YES to YOU, you will improve your mood state and your energy. Finding the right balance between activity and rest for you will allow you to feel refreshed, motivated and energized.

4. Move Your Body

Movement and exercise have consistently been shown to improve mood. Really, exercise is valuable for a long list of reasons. But the one benefit alone of improving mood is enough to make it happen and to make it happen consistently. The second part of this is the kicker: consistency! When it is gray, dark and cold, you may not feel like going out for a walk or going to the gym. That’s ok because you don’t have to feel like it but you still need to do it. Focusing on how you feel after you exercise can be motivation to help you get your body moving. If you really just don’t want to go to the gym or go outside on a cold or damp day, do something indoors. Try yoga, dancing to your favorite music, light weight training, jumping jacks, plank pose and/or squats. You see, the movement doesn’t need to be anything fancy and it doesn’t even have to be for a really long time, you just need to do it in some form or another nearly every single day.  Try incorporating regular movement into your day and notice the impact it has on your mood, energy, stress and sleep. When you focus on the benefits, the motivation will follow.

5. Start a Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness has been shown to improve mood as well as your perspective on life’s challenges. Mindfulness is paying attention from moment to moment with a nonjudgmental awareness. When you are being mindful, you are fully engaged in the present moment. When you are being mindful you are fully engaged with what is true right now. When you are in a space of non-judgment and self-awareness, you are able to create a healthy perspective of the present moment. When you are present and engaged, you are able to notice your mood state and have an impact on it in a way that is healthy. Mindfulness allows you to evaluate the veracity of your mood and your thoughts.

Try starting with just one minute of being as mindfully present as possible. Set a timer for one minute, and for that minute attempt to focus on the rhythm of your breath. When you notice that your mind is wandering (and know that it definitely will!), guide your focus back to your breath. This is the practice. You are not trying to silence your mind, but to bring your focus back to your breath when your mind wanders. You can increase the amount of time by a minute every other day until you reach five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. The amount of time is not as important as doing it consistently and with effort. There are great apps out there to assist with the process. I personally like Insight Timer, but use any that you like and find to be helpful for you.

Try incorporating these five simple, natural strategies to improve your mood and you may find that the winter is not so blue after all.

Heal Emotional Eating to Heal Your Body and Yourself

 
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Emotional eating is a struggle for so many of us. It can dampen and diminish life in so many ways. Emotional eating causes you to not experience the full range of your emotions. Emotional eating often creates feelings of frustration and defeat related to unwanted weight gain. Overall, emotional eating causes a sense of disconnection from both your mind and your body. For so many that struggle with emotional eating, healing your relationship with your body can be the biggest challenge to overcome.

Body image issues run deep. A disturbing number of girls put themselves on a diet as early as the third grade. Many teenagers say that they want to lose weight to look more like images they see in fashion magazines or on social media. Most men and women say they feel insecure when they see celebrity images and other ads. This is not cool. Not only does the struggle with body image, insecurity and not feeling good enough begin quite young, many say that these stereotypes and feelings are often perpetuated within their peer groups and families.

Emotional eating can be driven by a negative body image and feeling less than, not good enough, or inadequate. These feelings create further uncomfortable internal experiences which will inevitably trigger more emotional eating. The first place to begin is to develop emotional awareness, which if you are unfamiliar with how to do this you can read more on several of my past blogs, one of them you can find here. When you are actively working towards emotional awareness and feeling more present and connected to your emotions and your life, it will be helpful to address the emotions that surface related to how you feel about your body.

How often do you complain about your body out loud? How often do you complain to yourself about or wish your body was different? How often do you judge other people’s bodies, either to yourself or to others? This is where you can begin to create the change you desire related to body image. First of all, if you are judging other’s bodies, practice thinking kinder or more neutral thoughts rather the negative biased thoughts. If you are talking about other people’s bodies, practice pointing out what you might compliment versus judge. When you treat others with kindness and respect and end the judgement thoughts and statements you can begin to heal yourself.

Working to heal your relationship with your perception of your own body may be more of a challenge than changing your perception of others. It starts with healing your relationship with food and feeling as though you are not intentionally harming your body or sabotaging your body with negative thoughts, beliefs and actions.

Even though you desire to heal the root cause of your struggles with emotional eating and body image issues, weight loss may be a goal for you. This can bring up additional uncomfortable emotions such as fear. You may be fearful of the attention that weight loss attracts. You may fear the line of questioning around your weight loss such as, “how did you lose so much weight?” or “what diet did you use?” and so on. You may also fear only being noticed for weight loss. You may fear being judged or even being more attractive to others and what that might mean. You may fear being considered “good” if you lose weight and “bad” if you gain weight. This is super complicated stuff. So to think a diet, a workout plan or even a few compliments will heal these deep-rooted thoughts, beliefs, feelings and actions, think again. It starts with healing yourself. Food and even weight have only become metaphors for the challenges, fears and insecurities you experience.

Many of those I work with initially say that they want to lose weight. But really, as we dig deeper, they want to feel more confident about their body. They want to make choices that create a sense of control and empowerment within their lives. This is where the real work begins. You see, there is no diet that will offer anything more than a temporary feeling of accomplishment. There is no workout plan that will help you address and explore your emotions. There is no compliment that will change your mind about yourself or your body if you don’t believe it in your heart. 

When you set out to begin healing your relationship with food, your body and yourself, here are some important elements to consider. I recommend getting out a journal and spend time reflecting and writing down your answers to the following questions.

-What do you like about yourself?

-How do you want to feel?

-How has your past impacted your body image and your choices? (You can read more about your food story here.)

-How have comments from others impacted how you feel about yourself?

-How have certain food choices from this past week caused you to feel about yourself now, why?

-When in your life did you feel your best about yourself and/or your body, why?

When you take time to deeply reflect on yourself, your body, your thoughts, beliefs, actions and choices you can begin to know yourself more deeply. The more deeply you know and understand yourself, the more you can practice self-acceptance. When you reflect on your answers to the questions above, what stands out to you?

Now begin to determine your strengths. Take time to acknowledge what you like about yourself. Become very clear about how you want to feel—both about yourself and in general. Begin to work with these elements first. How can you use your strengths to empower yourself to take ownership over your choices. How can you use the positive attributes you can recognize about yourself right now to heal your life? Now move into awareness of your emotions (if you’d like to learn more about this process you can read more here). Practice noticing, accepting and understanding them. Move into a space of applying this same practice with food. Ask yourself with each food choice you make if that choice supports feeling a sense of self-respect and self-love.

As you grow in your ability to make healthy, intuitive and mindful choices relating to food, the next phase of healing is to move your focus into your body. While this may feel awkward in the beginning, integrate a time to practice being grateful for individual elements of your body. Practice looking at a specific body part, such as your feet, and express gratitude to them for walking you where you need to go. Focus on your heart and thank it for never missing a beat. Gaze into your eyes in the mirror and express gratitude to them for allowing you see all of the beauty of nature and those you care about. These practices of appreciation for all that your body can do will allow an internal shift of how you experience and care for your body.

When you offer your body gratitude, you are offering yourself a place to feel more accepting, loving and kind towards yourself. Allot time daily to engage in the practice of healing your relationship with your body and with yourself. I recommend keeping a journal through this process as you will begin to experience a powerful shift as you practice over time.

Another step to heal your relationship with yourself is to compliment yourself. Acknowledge when you working hard, and tell yourself that you appreciate this hard work. Acknowledge when you practice elements that are challenging and thank yourself for remaining dedicated even when it is hard. Acknowledge when you make a specific choice that you feel proud of allow yourself to really feel this pride within. Practice stating to yourself what you do like about yourself, what you are good at, what physical attributes you appreciate about yourself. Validate your feelings to yourself and be grateful to yourself for choosing the difficult path of healing as opposed to remaining stuck in a space of struggle and fear.

You see, you are not your body, but you do live in your body. You have to determine what kind of home for yourself that your body will be. Will it be one that you fight with, detest, complain about and harm? Or will it be one that you respect, treat with kindness, love, and deeply care for? As you treat yourself with care and make choices that support how you want to feel, you create an opportunity to transfer that care to your physical body. Conversely, when you are kind to your body, you are creating a deeper kindness for who you are at the core of your being.

As you heal, your relationship with food will transform. Over time, you will not judge, restrict, binge or complain about food. Over time you will treat your body and mind with the respect and care that they deserve because you will feel your worth and have a longing for this deeper well-being.

When you work with these practices I would love to hear about your experience. If you find these concepts to be overwhelming, you don’t have to go it alone. Reach out for support either from me or from someone you trust. Know that there is hope for healing.