Repost: 5 Mindful Tips for Navigating Holiday Stress

Repost: 5 Mindful Tips for Navigating Holiday Stress

This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.org

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It is officially the holiday season! During this time of year there can be so much pressure that unfortunately the joy, magic, and meaning of the season is lost, often replaced by stress. Especially now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it is hard to ignore the almost instantaneous rush of frenetic energy that ensues as we near the close of the calendar year.

It is more than possible though to not only survive the holiday season, but to even thrive and connect to your particular observance in a deeper and more profound way. Here are some common stressors that pop up this time this year, and mindful antidotes to help you through the discomfort.

1) Demands on Time

In December, our schedules often fill up quickly with work and personal holiday parties. These back-to-back parties start to feel overwhelming as we try to juggle them with all of our other commitments.

Also, creating the holiday experience we desire for our loved ones and ourselves takes planning. It often starts to feel like we are chickens running around with no heads collecting recipes, buying and wrapping gifts, inviting guests, hosting, traveling, cooking, cleaning, buying trees (or menorahs!), and decorating.

Antidote: Treat yourself! 

You do not need to say yes to everything. Giving and giving without stopping is not an altruistic notion. It is important to be mindful of when we might need refueling and to allow that to happen. Self-care can mean many things, but it can be as simple as a night to ourselves that includes a bath and a good meal—cooked by someone else!

2) Loneliness During the Holidays

There is an immense amount of pressure to please the people we love with the gifts that we think they will love. Instead of a joyful endeavor, gift giving becomes a chore, and we often become resentful and unloved if we do not receive something equally meaningful in return.

Pressure can also manifest by way of the longing to spend the holidays with those we love, and those we desire to love. For many, this may create feelings of loneliness.

Antidote: Donate your time to help those less fortunate

The holidays are a particularly poignant time to practice the art of compassion, to think of others needs before our own. There is great opportunity to give to, and establish meaningful connections with, those who don’t have as many resources as we do. Giving doesn’t have to be monetary or a physical gift. Giving comes in many forms, including smiles, time, and emotional support.

3) Expectations of Perfection

This time of year is ripe with the expectations we put upon ourselves to get it just “right.” Things have to look, taste, feel, and be a certain way. We start to get into this mind space where things have to be perfect, which of course, is not possible. It’s how we deal with this realization that determines our well-being.

While it is nice to take the time to create a mindful, aesthetically, and gustatorily pleasing experience, we often get caught up in the trap of perfection. Not only does this make the holiday journey feel less joyful, but we also set ourselves up to experience a lot of disappointment.

Antidote: Reflect on the meaning of the holidays

It is hard to stop and smell the roses at any time of year, and it is especially easy to get caught up in the commercial version of what the holiday season means today. But taking the time to mindfully reflect on what matters, whether it be our religion or tradition, or even the healing power of love, helps us to keep our perspective as the year draws to a close.

4) The Indulge/Guilt Cycle

We often seem to let all notions of wellness and health fall by the wayside during this time of year. The problem is not only are we not staying healthy, but we are also setting ourselves up for feelings of guilt and self-deprecation.

A thriving life depends on moderation, and this concept particularly applies when we are inundated with mass amounts of food and drink. By eating mindfully, we can keep our minds, bodies, and brains healthy without the self-defeating thoughts of “we are so bad” “we are so fat,” etc.

Antidote: Take time to enjoy all the flavors of the holiday season. 

There are five (A,B,C,D,E) basic ways to begin a mindful eating practice:

1. Ask

  • Why am I eating now?
  • What am I eating now?
  • What else am I doing now that may be distracting?

2. Be grateful
3. Chew, and then chew again
4. Dine (don’t just eat)
5. Engage your attention

5) Stress: Family Anxiety

Family stress shows up in many ways. This has taken on a new tone this year, given that many families made different political choices.

While there might actually be very real difficulties surrounding the interpersonal dynamics of our family, we sometimes get caught up in fuelling the fire, rather than abating it.

However, most of the stress and anxiety around family is often anticipatory. Based on not-so-pleasant past experiences, combined with the upcoming impending mix of different personalities, we start to worry about family dysfunction rearing its ugly head. While there might actually be very real difficulties surrounding the interpersonal dynamics of our family, we sometimes get caught up in fuelling the fire, rather than abating it.

Antidote: Engage in gratitude. 

Take the time to step back and bear witness to all that you have, to count your blessings, as they say. Gratitude goes a long way when it comes to overall wellness. During this time of year, a sense of gratitude can easily fall by the wayside as indulgence and the idea of “more” and “merrier” are front and center.

So, while in the midst of the tumult of the holiday season, try to re-center by consciously being grateful for the multiple aspects of this season, and our loved ones, that we are blessed to engage with.

Repost: Mind Wandering: Wondering With Purpose

Repost: Mind Wandering: Wondering With Purpose

This post originally appeared in The Jewish Week

Have you ever lost your train of thought and found it elsewhere? How about “spaced-out” while reading, listening to a lecture, watching a show or even driving?

This could be your mind, wandering.

Mind Wandering refers to the phenomenon of being unable to focus on any single topic for a long period of time. As it turns out, it is very common. There is even evidence that indicates that mind wandering may constitute a psychological baseline; research shows that our brains’ daydream so easily and effortlessly that it appears to be our default mode of thought (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17188554).

MindWandering_PicIn a culture obsessed with efficiency, a wandering mind is often derided as a lazy habit, and a threat to happiness. In fact, Freud regarded mind wandering as an example of “infantile” thinking, a sign of procrastination, the very opposite of productivity. In a similar vein, in 2010, Killingsworth and Gilbert wrote in Sciencemag.org that: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/KILLINGSWORTH-WanderingMind.pdf) .”

Yet, on the flip side, a study from the University of British Columbia found that while mind wandering is usually associated with “laziness or inattentiveness,” the human brain is actually very active while daydreaming. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm).

In that study, psychologists used brain scans to study participants as they performed easy, mindless assignments and found that their brains did indeed wander – but it was also during that period that the section of the brain known as the “executive network” was the most active.

This executive network, incidentally, is what we turn to when confronted with a high-level, complex problem. So daydreaming, according to this study, could help us solve some of our most pressing problems.

This suggests that mind wandering isn’t quite as mindless as it was previously considered. A daydream seems to produce parallel processing in two supposedly oppositional neural networks: the active executive part and the resting default.

How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Let’s consider that the explanation resides in the fact that it’s not enough to simply daydream. Letting the mind drift off is the easy part. What’s much more difficult (and more important) is maintaining a touch of meta-awareness, so that if you happen to come up with a useful new idea while in the shower or sitting in traffic, you’re able to take note of it. In other words, “zoning out” might not be such a bad thing, as long as there is a conscious ability to hone and nurture what happens during that time.

To take this even further, research suggests that if we are somewhat mindful of where our minds are, without judgment, of course, the act of mind wandering might be essential to conjuring deep thoughts essential to living a connected and balanced life.

So, in an ironic riff on the idea that mindfulness is rooted in being “here and now”, when we are mindful of our mind wandering, it becomes functional.

I can’t help but realize how apropos this idea is during the time of the Jewish festival of Sukkot (“Huts”). This holiday is literally the quintessential WANDERING holiday! It commemorates the time that the Israelites spent wandering (yep, wandering) in the desert. The only shelter that they had at that time was from the temporary huts, or dwellings, that they erected during their 40-year journey.

What makes the journey distinctive is that while traveling in the desert, the Israelites were not wandering aimlessly from place to place, though it might have appeared that way.  They were consciously connected to something greater than themselves. In the desert, for the first time in their history, they truly grew into one nation connected to their ancestry and progeny, to their culture and religion, and to a “higher power.”

In today’s day and age, The flimsy sukkah structure returns those who observe the holiday to this time in Jewish history, while also catapulting us into our future as we make new memories for the next generation.

In addition to this generational interconnectedness, dwelling in this transient “home” also connects us to the tenuous nature of life. Just as our thoughts come and go, so does life. The temporary sukkah reflects our impermanence. Yet, sitting in the sukkah symbolizes at once the fragility of life, and also all that is at our fingertips to celebrate, if we choose to be mindful of it. This is the real beauty of the sukkah; that in the midst of the transience, there is the opportunity to experience joy and hope.

In honoring the nomadic, wandering lifestyle and in building our literal and metaphorical “sukkah,” we are allowing ourselves to continue to connect ourselves with our past, present, and fruitful future.

So go ahead, I dare you…wander.

Let’s wander toward thriving, together,

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Dr. Jen/Jennifer Wolkin, PhD

Repost: Zen and The Art of Dissertation Writing: A journey towards mindful-living through yoga and metaphor

Repost: Zen and The Art of Dissertation Writing: A journey towards mindful-living through yoga and metaphor

This blog post originally appeared on YogaCity.

Trying to write my dissertation jolted me into a realm of self-blame and self-criticism.  I procrastinated because it was a burden, a dragon whose fiery mouth I wanted to avoid at all cost.  I was anxious and I struggled with that internal voice of doubt that whispered, “are you sure you are good enough for this?”

Early on, immersing myself didn’t feel good.  I definitely did not expect it to be easy. Nothing worth doing gets done without hard work ever is – but I certainly couldn’t have predicted the negative energy that I allowed the dissertation to create.

So I avoided it in an attempt to make all the negativity disappear. Of course, the more I avoided it, the bigger it became.

Then I began to devote myself to a modest practice of yoga to find more tranquility, focus, and calm. At first it was nearly impossible. My mind raced with thoughts: thoughts of fear, uncertainty, worthlessness, inability to succeed, and even thoughts about thoughts.

My initial poses were haphazard, pretzel-like and ungraceful.  My breath pattern was  quick and shallow, reflecting my difficulty holding the asanas as my mind strayed in all directions.  “At least,” I kept telling myself, “I was coming to the mat.”

As long as I carved out my space, a little rectangular niche of my neon green rubber yoga mat, I was going to be okay.  By the time savasana approached I could at least surrender my self-deprecating thoughts to some indescribable energy created by the convergent effects of movement and breath.

Yoga gave me perspective, which I craved, and I began to practice up to four days a week. Soon, the natural progression of my day became a yoga practice and then hours of writing.  The energy generated through yoga was evident in the organization of my thought and ability for my thought to be transferred coherently into words.  To do yoga and then write was a logical pattern I fell into.

Ultimately, I chose to bring my journey both off the mat, and out from behind my computer. I let go of the striving to finish it, and the attitude of just “needing to get this done and over with.”  Slowly but steadily learned to reinforce the small steps, as I remembered my practice and the way my once quick and shallow breath slowed down and became more melodic, deep, and visceral, to the little baby steps I made with my balance until my physical core and my spiritual core became stronger.

In this way, the yoga was an organic foray into learning about mindfulness and how to engage any process through a more mindful lens. As I cultivated my ability to focus on the breath as I moved in and out of asana, my mind wandered less; instead, I became present to the moment as it was unfolding.   Being present, it turned out, was more enjoyable and fulfilling than remaining on autopilot, and, at the whim of my wandering mind.  With the same practice off the mat, the dissertation no longer became something I just did, but became a journey, which I appreciated and sometimes even savored, at every stage.

Yoga practice fostered a lens by which I could see my dissertation as a metaphor for living life in general.  That is, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “on purpose.”

In the end, neither yoga nor mindfulness will eliminate life’s pressures.  Yet, take it from me: embracing life as a journey of poignant moments to be lived fully over the course of a lifetime makes me feel like I’m thriving.

Repost: 4 Lessons in Mindfulness from the Olympians

Repost: 4 Lessons in Mindfulness from the Olympians

This post originally appeared on Mindful.org

When you watch the Olympics, you can’t help but imagine the countless hours of training all of the athletes have devoted themselves to in order to accomplish the unfathomable feats of stamina, incomprehensible shows of endurance, and extraordinary acts of skill.

And that kind of rigorous training, steeped in competition, often can’t be fully actualized without training the mind as well.

Some of the athletes have been vocal about their penchant for mindfulness meditation as an integral part of their quest for gold. For example, Tom Daley, a diver from Great Britain, told the Telegraph: “You can only do so much in the gym or in the pool.” He continued, “Every morning I do 10 minutes of mindfulness where I do meditation and I use that in competition and every day life… It’s helped me massively and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why this year I’ve been the most consistent that I’ve been in competition.”

Other athletes might be practicing mindfulness without knowing that’s what they’re doing—they just experience the flow state that comes with focused attention.

But what’s clear is that the very mindful way these athletes approach their craft can be seen in their actions. Here are 4 lessons in mindfulness we can learn from the Olympians:

  1. Focused Attention is a Skill

    A main component of mindfulness is that it helps cultivate awareness by paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment.

    If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing).These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for an athlete who can’t stop thinking about their last failed performance, or one who can’t stop obsessing over what this performance will mean going forward.Have you ever heard a sports announcer say that an athlete must have “been in his head” too much – which caused them to make a simple mistake, but one that cost them the game or race? When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.

    This year, Wilhem Belocian of France, bolted a split second before competitors. The false-start alarm rang out, and the 21-year-old’s hopes of winning a medal in Brazil were over. It was heartbreaking to watch as he collapsed to the ground and punched the pavement before laying on his back with his hands over his face, clearly in agony.

    Present moment awareness, honed, is true gift. Equally important is allowing ourselves to grieve, and then forgive ourselves, and move on

  2. Compassion is Essential

    Mindfulness is more than sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, back aligned, thumbs grazing forefingers, hands resting on thighs. No doubt, this is a feasible and efficient way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not the only way.The essence of mindfulness practice is learning to live with more integrity, by nurturing the power to choose our response in any given situation. We begin to live mindfully when we start to cultivate a way of being that embodies mindfulness-based principles like gratitude, loving-kindness, and compassion.

    When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.

    For an Olympic athlete, this kind of mindfulness practice is perhaps most reflected in the ability to engage in “good sportsmanship.”A prime example of this is reflected in the actions of Abbey D’Agostino, a Team USA 5,000-meter runner, and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They both collided during a run, fell, and subsequently chose to spend the rest of the race encouraging one another, despite the fact that this had the potential to snuff out either’s chance to qualify for the next run. If someone who has trained and competed for years for this spot can forgive and help out their competition, surely we can see the bigger picture in our own lives as well.

  3. Stress is Manageable

    Stress-reduction has been noted as a useful byproduct of the practice of mindfulness.

    But an appropriate amount of stress is actually adaptive. For athletes especially, the stress-response (also knows as “fight or flight”) elicits an acute surge of adrenaline, and stimulates an increase of blood pumping to the limbs, which helps them as they race towards the finish line. While this mental pressure to beat out the competition is often crucial to success, sometimes the physiological stress response never turns off, and for many of us, stress begins to take the form of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that are often paralyzing.That’s where mindfulness comes in.

    A foundational element of mindfulness entails focusing on the sensation of the breath. Engaging the breath provides an opportunity to help lower your heart rate. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” utilizes the diaphragm, and allows for a fuller, slower, and more rhythmical breath. This is a technique used to reduce stress by breaking shallow patterns of breathing that use the abdomen and the chest. It works, because the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind

  4. Autopilot is Detrimental to Your Health

    The practice of cultivating our attention to the present moment also prevents us from living on autopilot. When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.For an athlete, who is constantly putting their body through high-intensity training, it can be easy to let minor sensations slide, as the adrenaline itself drowns out some experience of acute pain. Mindfulness particularly allows an athlete to cultivate an acute awareness of their body, to know when and how to take care of it; when it needs a break, when it’s okay to push harder, when it needs to refuel, and when it needs a longer respite to heal.

    When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.

    To use Abbey D’Agostino as an amazing example again, after tearing ligaments in her knee, she understood that her season was over. But her message that it is more important to honor where her body is at, than to put it through activity that might exacerbate her injury beyond repair, prevailed nonetheless, and to many, she is still an Olympic winner—the true embodiment of what it means to be an athlete on the world stage.

    Sometimes life takes us out of the race that we are in, out of the path we saw ourselves on, but at the same time, this change allows us instead to succeed in things we never imagined.

Go For the Gold

We all have our own golden pursuits. And we all have our own hurdles in life to jump, targets to aim for, and sand traps to avoid. But the real gold medal is a life of thriving, cultivated by paying attention to fully living and enjoying every moment. It really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey that we take to get there.

How will you take these Olympic gold messages with you as you reach for your life goals?

Five Strategies to Help Us Help Our Children And Ourselves In Times of Trauma

Five Strategies to Help Us Help Our Children And Ourselves In Times of Trauma

 

In honor of PTSD Awareness Month, and in response to the tragedy in Orlando, I offer five ways to help us help our children and ourselves in times of trauma.

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  1. Give Yourself Permission to Feel Many Emotions at Different Times:

One of the core concepts of mindfulness meditation is the idea of having an attitude of non-judgment of, and openness towards, current experiences. After a tragedy, it is natural to react with shock, anger, numbness, sadness, grief, confusion, and even denial. Most often, grieving is not a linear process and you might experience yourself fluctuating between different feelings at different times, on different days and during different weeks. It is okay. Allow yourself to feel what you feel with as little judgment as possible.

  1. Take Care of Yourself, Then Take Care of Others:

This is true on any given day, but most importantly at a time like this. If you are anxious and your symptoms continue to persist, please reach out for support/professional guidance. More than ever, make a point to engage in your usual routine. Eat well and sleep well. Engage in healthy coping strategies (breath from your diaphragm, take a bath, journal, watch a comedy, create your own safe space and let yourself cry). Managing your own stress is a precursor to helping your children manage theirs.

  1. Create a Sense of Safety:

For most children, their parents symbolize safety. In times of doubt, children look to their primary attachment figures to cultivate a safe space. Let your children know you are available if they have questions and actively make yourselves available. Children don’t yet have the same cognitive tools needed to cope. Model resilience in the face of hardship without denying that hardship.

  1. Recognize, Be Real, But Reassure:

It is important to recognize signs of your children’s distress. Sometimes it is not obvious, as fear and anxiety might manifest as physical symptoms (stomach aches and headaches) and/or insomnia (and other sleep difficulties). Children, especially teens, might isolate and/or withdraw. Recognize the pain. Then, it is important to be real with your children. Limited media exposure is a crucial element, but on the flipside, children need to know what happened. If your children do not approach you, take the time to find out what kinds of questions they are having and what kinds of feelings they are experiencing. Use discretion (talk to them in an age-appropriate way) and be honest about what is happening; it is important not to deny the events. After honest, but age-appropriate and discrete discussion, reassure your children’s sense of safety. At this juncture, they are internalizing and probably deeply personalizing the events, wondering “when will something happen to ME.” Reassure through returning to normal routine and sending messages of safety overall. Keep life feeling as safe and predictable as possible under the circumstances.

  1. Reassess and Regroup:

Different people, of different ages, express trauma differently, at different times. The reaction to trauma will vary greatly. One thing, however, is for sure: The effects of trauma don’t go away easily. They might remit or decrease in severity, but they usually ebb and flow for a very long time.Healing is possible and there is hope amidst this gripping grief.  As children develop they will adopt more evolved coping skills in order to adapt, and ideally the appropriate acute treatment will serve as a tool to cultivate increased resilience as time goes on. Yet, continue to reassess and regroup. It is important to continue to check in with yourself and your children if symptoms reemerge, or if other traumatic circumstances arise.

*If you need a referral to a trauma specialist, please contact me at DrWolkin@BrainCurves.com.

To Healing,

Jennifer Wolkin, PhD