Monthly Archives: February 2016

Soothing Sounds and Sleep Aid Apps

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 9.10.22 AM

Freeimages.com/ivavilli

This week on the blog is all about environmental stressors.

As I have explained before, environmental stressors “come from the physical world around you. Things like traffic, weather, noise, irritating sounds, offensive smells or images…things in your environment that make you feel unsettled or frustrated. It may be clutter or disorganization in your home or office spaces. It could be the voices of morning radio hosts that you listen to on your way to work, or the sound of sirens, crickets, the hum of the refrigerator at night. It could be something seemingly benign like bare walls in your office that make your environment feel too sterile and intense.”

I will be exploring some of these potential stressors throughout the week and offering advice on how to address and alleviate external sources of stress. First up I have some recommendations for soothing sound apps that can help you drown out nighttime noises and sleep easier.

I used to have neighbors that would stay up until the early hours of the morning blasting their music. The shared wall between our houses would pulse and tremble throughout the night from the power of their bass, and my husband would joke that he wanted to write down a list of all the songs we recognized and leave it for them on their car in the morning. That is how loud the music was and how clearly we could hear it. We told them many times that, while we appreciated their taste in music, we would prefer not to hear it at two in the morning, but the message never seemed to stick for very long and eventually we had to turn to others means of blocking out the noise so that we could get some sleep.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 9.25.27 AM.pngEnter Relax Melodies.

I have used this app in my massage practice throughout the years and really like it. It allows you to combine a very wide variety of sounds, from birdsong, to soft rain, ocean waves, thunderstorms, wood flutes, crickets, a flowing river and lots more. There are so many options that you are bound to find one that works for you, and if you are someone who tends to become fixated on a single noise at night and cannot sleep because of it, then you would likely benefit from layering multiple sounds on top of each other, with the added ability to adjust the volume levels of each individual sound. You can have the sound of rain playing loudly to lull you to sleep, but add in a softer volume of ocean waves crashing in the background, for example.

This app was not a total fix for our noisy neighbors because my iPad speakers could not really compete with their massive sound system next door, but it definitely helped us shift our focus away from their music and onto more soothing sounds.

Relax Melodies is available for free download for both Apple and Android systems.

Another option, and my favorite sound app is Rain, Rain. IScreen Shot 2016-02-29 at 9.35.08 AM.png use this app all the time in my practice because the rain sounds create a perfect white noise that complements and blends in wonderfully with the music I play during sessions. Like Relax Melodies, you can play multiple sounds at once, layering them over each other. I like to layer the Rain, Rain Original sounds with the Thunder Cracks to recreate that soothing, sleepy feeling you get from hanging in bed on a rainy day. There are a variety of rain and storm sounds to choose from (summer rain, forest rain, windy storm), as well as other water sounds like ocean waves, fountains, or streams. There are also a variety of nature sounds (fire, desert wind, seagulls), and a few miscellaneous sounds, like a running clothes dryer or a train traveling over the tracks, mixed in.

Rain, Rain is also available for free on both Apple and Android devices.

 

{This is not a sponsored post. Neither Relax Melodies, or Rain, Rain are affiliated with More Well. I just enjoy both of these apps and hope you will find them useful!}

 

 

The ABC123 Method Of Time Management

In a previous post, I offered a tip on how to manage your to-do list by knocking off a few short, quick items each day. The idea there was to quickly and easily dispense with the smaller tasks that add to our mental clutter, but are rarely a top priority. It targeted little things that can be accomplished in a short period of time.

Today’s post is less about finding a quick fix, but rather utilizing a complete time management system. It is about overhauling the way you organize and prioritize your time, and shifting your focus to the most important tasks each day. While in my previous tip it takes only 5 minutes or so at the end of each day to create your task list, the ABC123 Prioritized Planning method requires a solid 15-20 minutes of dedicated planning each day to implement it properly. But 15 minutes first thing in the morning, or at the end of your day will save you a lot of time and headache later on.

This time management system works in three phases. Complete all three phases every day during your dedicated planning period.

1. Create a list of everything you want to accomplish today (or the following day if you are making your list in the evening). The list should be in no particular order. Just write down everything that you would like to get done that day. The list may be very long and that is fine. Do not worry about whether or not you can actually accomplish everything on the list in a single day.

2. Assign a value to each item on the list, using ABC. Go through the list and place an “A” next to everything that absolutely must get done today. These should be your most important tasks. Part of this exercise involves learning to distinguish between important and urgent. Just because something feels urgent does not mean it is important. Urgency often creates a false sense of importance, and leads us to believe that that task should take priority over all others and be handled first and right away. You may race across the room to answer a ringing phone because it feels urgent, but the call may not be important at all. The idea behind the ABC123 method is to prioritize importance over everything else. Important items, even if they are not urgent, should be marked as “A” items. An “A” item could be anything from spending one-on-one time with your child, to going for a run, picking up your prescriptions at the pharmacy, or putting gas in your car because the tank is nearly empty. Some of these are important, but not urgent. Some are both.

“B” items are things that should be done today. These are things that are of some importance to you. An example might be going grocery shopping because you are running low on food. You are not out of food, so it does not have to get done today, but it probably should be done today. That is a “B” item.

“C” items are the tasks on your list that could be done today, but no harm will be done if you do not get to them. These are items that are of little importance to you and that should never take priority over more important items on your list. An example of a “C” item for me would be cleaning my shower. I probably need to clean my shower. I think about it from time to time, but it is not that important to me and I will not prioritize it over something that is more important to me. Spending time with my friends is important to me. I would never turn down an invitation to see a friend in order to make more time to clean my shower. The shower can wait. That is what “C” items are.

From day to day, the same items on your list may shift in terms of priority. If you do not go grocery shopping when it was a “B” item and should have been done, and you run out of food at home, grocery shopping is now an “A” item. Now you must go grocery shopping. That is an “A” task. If I never get around to cleaning my shower and I start to see lots of mold and I feel gross every time I get in there, cleaning my shower may suddenly feel a lot more important than it did a few weeks ago. It may bump all the way from a “C” to an “A” item. But should it get priority over other “A” items on my list? That is where step three comes in.

3. Assign another value to each item on your list, using 123, and so on. Go through your “A” items first, the items of greatest importance to you, and decide which “A” task is the most important. That item gets a 1. The second most important item in your “A” group gets a 2, and so on until each “A” item has been assigned a numerical value. Then move on to the “B” items and assign the most important “B” task a 1, and so forth. Repeat this with the “C” items.

Now that you have a complete list of tasks with assigned values, you can organize your day by moving through your list in order of value, starting with the most important things first. There may be certain things on your list that can only occur at a particular time of day. If that is the case, move down to the item of the next highest value and return to the more important item later in the day at the appropriate time. You will likely not get through the full list. Odds are there will be interruptions throughout your day. Meetings or other work obligations that you have to attend to. Unexpected and urgent (though possibly not actually important) tasks that require your immediate attention and pull you away from the items on your list. That is okay. Just return to your list again when you are free and start with the remaining item of highest value. When you spend your time doing things that are most important to you, even if those tasks require a greater amount of time, you will end up feeling a greater sense of accomplishment and reward in your daily life than if you toil away or waste your time on less important activities.This method helps you recognize the value of your time. The goal here is not necessarily to get more done, but to get better things done. To use your time in a way that fulfills you and enriches your daily life and experience.

 

A Vacation From Your Everyday Self

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 9.28.16 AM Today is my first day back from vacation. My husband and I spent the first half of this week resting in the sun and sand down in the Bahamas. It was amazing. We spent our days out on the beach, books in hand, just letting the hours pass slowly by. We read when we felt like reading, swam in the ocean when we felt like swimming. We abandoned our beach chairs when we got hungry, moved into the shade when we had our fill of the sun. We paid no attention to the hour of the day, and had absolutely no schedule. It was unbelievably restful and restorative.

It got me thinking, why can’t we have more of this in our everyday lives? My regular life is very schedule heavy. My appointment spots are available for booking six weeks in advance. I plan out my life in month-long chunks and then watch as the calendar fills up. If I want to have people visit, or if I decide to take a trip, or even if a friend wants to get together for dinner on certain nights of the week, I need at least a month’s warning and usually more to guarantee my availability. And I know I am not the only one who operates this way. We all have such packed schedules. Between work and family duties, our weeks are jammed with places to go, people to see, things to do that we feel we cannot put off any longer. Have you ever tried planning a weekend dinner with a group of working adults? Trying to find a date that will work for everyone is almost comical in its impossibility. There are too many schedules to accommodate and all of those schedules are packed to the brim. Even on days off when I have nothing on my plate and nowhere I need to be, I still find myself planning out my day. Yay, I have no obligations! Now is the time to do all of the house stuff and random errands that I cannot manage to fit in during the week! It is exhausting and it turns what should be leisure time into more scheduled, dedicated, organized time. That is not real leisure and it is impossible to feel truly relaxed and rested when your entire life operates this way. That is why we need vacations so badly. We need opportunities to break away from our schedules and do things only according to our own desires and whims without a sense of obligation or any regard for timeframes.

So why not try to incorporate this vacation practice into our regular lives from time to time? My plan is to pick a day each month (I know, more scheduling, but that is the reality of my life), and block it off as entirely unscheduled time. I will not pay attention to the hour and what I should be doing at that time of day, but rather focus only on what I feel like doing. I will wake when I feel like waking, eat when I feel hungry, venture out if it is a nice day and I feel like being outside, or stay in and read or watch a movie, or just hang on the couch all day listening to music and drifting off into short naps if the mood strikes me. When I walk the dog, I will not start out with a sense of whether it will be a short or a long walk, because time will be of no matter to me on this day and we will simply walk as far as the dog desires.

I encourage you to experiment with this practice in your own life. Do you feel like you cannot give up a whole day to unstructured time? Maybe try doing one morning a month where you allow yourself to leisurely and languidly move through the first half of your day, not worrying about what you have to do later that afternoon or trying to fit in some smaller obligations over coffee. Or take a weekend afternoon with your kids and instead of having set plans, just see where the day takes you. Try out slow parenting, and see what you notice when you stop rushing to fit a schedule and just enjoy your time with your children.

It can be hard to let go of the idea that time should be structured, and that our days, whether explicitly scheduled or not, should follow a certain order and timeline. We need structure and it would be absurd to think that we could escape our schedules entirely. Life is life and we all have obligations. But it is good and reasonable to get away from the busy organization of our lives every now and again, and we should not always need to leave town in order to carve out a little time to relax and unwind. Relaxation is important. Making more time for it in our daily lives will keep us healthier and happier in the long run, which will make managing our busy schedules that much easier.

A Good Stretch for a Stiff Neck

I have spent several hours on airplanes this week, which always leaves my neck feeling stiff and painful. Time to break out one of my favorite neck stretches! One of the most common postural issues I see in clients in elevated shoulders, which shortens the neck and leads to chronically tight and sore neck and shoulder muscles. The levator scapula (along with the upper trapezius) is the muscle that lifts your shoulder blade, pulling your shoulder up toward your ear. When you walk around with your shoulders up, your levator scapulae remain in a shortened, contracted position, leading to that feeling of deep, achey tightness in your shoulders that may sound very familiar to you right now.

To help release this neck and shoulder tension, I recommend performing this stretch on a regular basis, and be sure to keep an eye on the position of your shoulders throughout the day. You want the tops of your shoulders to be down, away from your ears, and your neck to be nice and long.

 

 

5 Things To Remember When Asking For Advice

No one is perfect.

It can be really hard to admit to yourself that you do not know how to handle a situation, or make the best decision for your own life. It is even harder to go to someone else, tell them you do not know how to help yourself and thus need to rely on them to guide you. It is basically like saying, “hey you are a smarter, and more stable and capable person than I am, tell me what to do.” Asking for help automatically creates an imbalance between you and another person, and it does not feel great to be on the weaker side of that scale. To seek help means becoming vulnerable to the judgment of others. That can be pretty scary. But we all need help sometimes, and opening yourself up to others will often mean that they will feel more comfortable opening up to you in the future. We all have different experiences and strengths to draw upon, and part of being human is learning which difficulties you can manage on your own and which ones require a little back up. You do not have to know how to overcome every obstacle that life presents to you. No one is that perfect.

Keep an open mind.

When I was in high school, I would often ask my mom for advice in situations where I had already made up my mind about what to do. I needed her to confirm and validate my decision, and when she did not, I would get really mad. Sometimes the advice you get will not be what you wanted to hear. Maybe that means it was not the best advice for you, but it is more likely to mean that you went in not seeking guidance, but simply looking to be validated. Try to keep an open mind when listening to someone else’s opinion. If you were really that confident in your own decision, you probably would not need validation in the first place. Maybe the choice you are making is not the best one for you, and some small part of you recognizes that, and is secretly hoping that someone else will intervene and lead you in a better direction.

You do not have to take the advice you are given.

It is helpful to weigh other people’s opinions, but only you can ultimately decide what is right for your life at any given moment in time. Hopefully the person giving you advice will offer guidance with real consideration and thoughtfulness to your specific life circumstances. It can be hard for people to see beyond their own experiences, though, and while the advice they offer may be what would work best for them, it may not necessarily be well suited to you. Thank them for the help, and reach out to someone else who may be more capable to help with your particular situation. You should never take someone’s advice just because you are afraid of hurting their feelings otherwise.

You deserve to be taken seriously.

If you ask for someone’s help and they brush off your problem as minor, silly, or not worthy of their consideration, stop going to that person for help. Not everyone will be in a position to help you. Sometimes people are extremely busy and not up to the task of properly attending to someone else’s needs. Sometimes people have their own problems to contend with that you may not know about, or for any number of reasons are too close to a situation to feel comfortable providing help. Sometimes people are just selfish. If people do not feel as if they are in a good position to help you, they should tell you that. No one should brush you off, or tell you that your problem is not worth worrying about. People who do that are people you should stop going to for advice.

Trust yourself.

It is useful to get other people’s advice and opinions, but you are the one who ultimately has to decide what to do. Try to treat your own need for help like you would that of a friend. Give your problem your full consideration. Weigh your options and act in the direction of honesty. Rarely in life do we not have the opportunity to go back and try to make something right when we chose the wrong course the first time around. Guidance from others can give you a good running start in situations that require you to act, but you are the one doing the leaping and you need to trust in your ability to land on both feet.

Weekly Wrap-Up 2.19.16

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 4.03.32 PM.png

This was a tiring week, the kind that inexplicably feels never-ending. But finally it is Friday afternoon and I am taking the next few days off for some well earned rest and relaxation. My hands are tired, my back is tired, my mind is tired. Winter has caught up to me and I am heading out in search of some restorative sunshine.

What about you? What are you up to this weekend?

If you are looking for a little weekend reading, you can bone up on some heart health information, learn how to stop wasting your time and mental energy on the things you do not care about, and instead practice giving your full attention to the things that do matter to you. And should you find that your weekend is unfortunately not the blissful respite I have no doubt you deserve, but rather full of anxiety and stress, try out this app to help calm your body and mind. While you are at it, check out the related links and stories below!

A few weeks back I wrote about five things to remember when giving advice. Next week, I will have its counterpart for advice-seekers, plus a way to organize your to-do list, a new way to think about tedious tasks, and more.

Have a wonderful, relaxing weekend!

How mindful meditation can change your brain for the better, and why it still may not be the workplace solution it is made out to be.

Plus, five mindfulness exercises for people who cannot meditate.

A new study adds further support that high-cholesterol foods do not increase your risk of heart disease. So in the back and forth between eggs versus no eggs, I guess we are back on the side of eggs. It is hard to keep up.

Have you seen those adult coloring books that help people manage stress and anxiety? You can download two pages of one for free here.

 

{Image: D, at sunset in California, somewhere along the PCH.}

 

 

 

Making Mindfulness Your Own

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 9.16.57 AM.png

freeimages.com/lisafanucchi

 

 

Mindfulness is all the rage. Every day it seems there is new article touting its many virtues, coupled with an image of a thin, beautiful white woman meditating on the edge of a sparkling lake, or surrounded by tall, flowing grasses in the middle of an open field. Do gorgeous women not get itchy?

I have trouble connecting to any of the common depictions of mindfulness. It either feels too new-agey for me, beloved by people who drink kombucha, and are completely sincere when talking about communing with the heart of the earthworm in the ground beneath them, the soul of the hawk in the sky above them, and every molecule and atom that exists in between the two. Or it seems too much like a lifestyle fad, the third point in a triangle of clean-eating and whatever it is that motivates people to snap pictures of themselves doing yoga poses in the concourses of  baseball stadiums. Please stop this. Just grab a beer and go watch the game. That is why you are here.

“That is why you are here,” is the essence of mindfulness, though, and the part of it that I most strongly connect to. While it may not be an easy task, mindfulness is a fairly simple idea: it is about being more present in your life. For some people that might mean connecting to and drawing energy from every sound, smell and sensation that surrounds them, but you do not have to learn to paint with all the colors of the wind to experience the benefits of being more mindful. Learning to be more present in any given moment, to fully attend to the task or experience right in front of you, can help make you more productive at work. It can make you a better, more engaged partner, friend, or parent. It can help reduce your stress and increase your enjoyment of leisure activities and downtime. It can improve your workouts and decrease your likelihood of injury. It can help you feel better rested, calmer and more in control of your mood, temperament and emotions.

It is true that I am making mindfulness sound easier than actually is. It takes practice to develop the ability to clear your mind of noise and clutter, and increase your focus and attention in the present moment. But you do not have to reach the level of a zen master in order to experience the positive impact of mindfulness in your daily life. Too often we operate with idea that we have to be all-in to make something worth doing in the first place. We end up denying ourselves useful, beneficial experiences because we cannot make the commitment to engaging in them all day, every day. Health and wellbeing are not all-or-nothing concepts. We move back and forth along a continuum of wellness. Sometimes we are doing great. Sometimes poorly. Most of the time, we are somewhere in between.

Mindfulness and meditation have become intrinsically linked. A true, complete mindfulness practice probably cannot exist without regular meditation. But again, I am arguing that there can still be value without completeness. Maybe meditation is not for you. Some people cannot do it. Some just do not want to. I am not a huge meditation fan. I will do guided meditations from time to time when I am feeling especially stressed or unsettled and need some assistance to move away from distressing thoughts and calm my mind (and I do think breathing and other relaxation exercises can be immensely helpful, though to my mind these are different from traditional meditation), but I cannot meditate for long stretches of time, I do not meditate on a daily, and rarely even a weekly basis, and I have no interest in learning to do so. And yet, I have found a way to incorporate mindfulness into my daily experiences, and it has made it easier for me to feel more in control of my time, and more engaged with the people and activities in my life.

Here are two simple practices I have used to improve my mindful engagement and attention.

1. I take time to purposefully pet my dog (or cat when he will tolerate it).

This is my dog:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.12.44 AM

He is sweet and beautiful, and the most well-behaved pooch I have ever known. He demands so little of me, gives me so much in return, and all too often when he wants to be pet, I will give him a couple of light taps on the head and then shoo him away because I am in the middle of something, or just do not want to be bothered. But every now and then (not often enough, I am sure he would tell you!), I sit down in the middle of the living room floor, or we stop and sit beneath a tree during a walk, and I pet him. Just pet him. I focus only on what it feels like to be petting him. How his fur feels. How tight his muscles seem to be. What his face looks like. How his breathing changes. How happy I am to be connecting with him, and how happy he is to be getting the attention he really longs for and deserves. I am engaged only in the act of petting him, and doing so in a very focused, purposeful way. Whenever my mind starts to wander, I come back to the action of petting him and reconnect to what I am feeling and what I am witnessing in him. Not only do I find this practice to be soothing for both of us, but it has helped me develop a greater ability to attend to other people’s needs. Once you learn how to really focus on one thing, you can begin to apply those lessons to other aspects of your life.

2. I talk to my husband, without any distractions.

We could all use a little more mindfulness in our relationships. My husband and I talk all the time, but often it is while we are also doing other things. When we run together, we have long conversations about all manner of topics. It is interesting and engaging, but our minds are also focused on how are bodies are feeling, and we are not fully attending to the conversation. Or we will talk when we are making dinner, eating dinner, washing dishes. We talk when we walk the dog, when we are folding laundry, when we are getting ready for bed. Sometimes one of us will be on the computer, reading a book, or doing something on our phones, and the other one will start talking and we will half listen, give a quick response and go back to what we were doing before. This is all great talking and I love it, but none of it is entirely mindful because we are always engaged in other tasks, so our attention is divided, or shifting back and forth between the thing we are doing and what the other person is saying.

From time to time, I like to sit with him and just talk. No multitasking. No taking care of other business, or knocking out a couple of mindless tasks that will not steal too much of our attention. I like all of the attention, every last bit of it, to be on our conversation. These are always our best talks. We really listen to each other and respond in thoughtful, fully engaged ways. We ask questions and connect the conversation to other interesting things we have read. The conversations flow wonderfully and build upon themselves. I do not sit, waiting for a moment to make my own point, but really, intentionally listen to what he is saying. We make room for each other in the discussion. Not talking over each other or around each other, but taking turns and giving space for new information and ideas to enter.

While these conversations are not our primary way of communicating–we are far more often doing multiple things at once and catching up on each other’s days in a looser, less focused manner–I believe they have improved our relationship overall because we have had more practice paying attention to each other and really giving each other all of our time and focus in those discussions. When I tell my husband that I need to talk to him about something, and he puts aside whatever else he was doing in that moment, I know that I have his full attention and that his focus will be entirely on me and what I am saying. That makes me feel valued and loved. It gives the signal that our relationship is important and deserves our full attention.

 

I encourage you to find your own small ways to incorporate mindfulness practice into your life. This could mean engaging more fully in play or conversation with your children, without any other distractions, and no multitasking. It could mean taking twenty minutes to yourself to read a book or a magazine, and focusing only on the words in front of you, letting all other thoughts come and quickly go from your mind, and bringing your attention back to the words on the page. It could mean taking a walk and only allowing your mind to take note of the things you are seeing, hearing and feeling. Do not think about your to-do list. Do not plan the week ahead in your mind. Just walk and be fully engaged in that experience. Mindfulness can take a variety of forms. Find the one that works best for you and work on developing that. Pick the moments in which you want to be most fully present, and make that your mindfulness practice.