The “Habitastic” way to deal with stress

It’s fairly well known that practicing generosity can be an effective way of alleviating stress. Acts of kindness and volunteer work get us out of our heads and out of the “I’m the center of the universe” trap by forcing us to focus on something or someone else for a while. All of a sudden our problems don’t seem so big or overwhelming when put in the perspective of another person’s.

Sweating through a morning of hard work at a Habitat for Humanity home-build this week showed me that there are even more benefits to lending a helping hand on a regular basis. Besides the distraction from our own problems, there is the self-esteem and self-efficacy that comes from learning to do an unfamiliar job and doing it well. I can proudly say that I helped build a roof today, and that feeling of accomplishment helps to dislodge any negative thoughts about myself that might be causing stress.

imageThe hard physical work is also so unlike what most of us spend our days doing that our monkey minds shut off for a while and we are able to stay focused on the task at hand. When operating a table saw or lifting heavy trusses atop a house, keeping everyone safe and doing it right take precedence over worrying about the project at work or the problems of our children.

There’s also the camaraderie of working as a team, whether it’s with perfect strangers, co-workers, or family members. We learn about each other, strengthen existing bonds, and are reminded of the need to be good communicators. Most people very quickly fall into a rhythm of working together for the common goal.

I don’t know what brought all these people together to build a house for an unknown family. There was the young woman getting married in two weeks, stressed over wedding plans, but taking the day to build instead. There was a group of people who work in the same office given the day off for the project. Two sisters, a mother and daughter, people on vacation. Was it for fun, stress relief, a belief in the cause? Does it really matter?

Jacques Cousteau said that, “It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”

What needs changing?

No one ate many sweets at my New Year’s Day party. Yoga class was packed yesterday. Gyms are full. In other words, a normal January.

Statistics are dismal, though, when it comes to people maintaining their new exercise routines, keeping pounds off, adopting new habits. By the end of the month, most of us will be back to our old, comfortable ways.

That may be because we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Having a view of the big picture can help us figure out which tree is going to fall today, or which aspect of health lends itself most to changing. Much as you might not want to hear it, maybe exercising more isn’t the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference for you right now.

Michelle Singletary, who writes a personal finance column for the Washington Post, gets it. She wrote a column last week about how better financial health is inextricably connected to physical health, social support and gratitude. She makes the point that health care costs can eat up retirement savings — so isn’t it a good idea to stay as healthy as possible before you reach that point? Are your relationships with family and friends weak or broken? Those are the people you might need if you fall on hard times, so Singletary says it makes sense to keep the ties strong.

In other words, all the dimensions of health — physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, occupational — help hold the structure of self together, and are equally important if we are going to reach an optimal state of well-being. So while you might want to lose a few pounds in the new year, is your physical health really the dimension where you are most in need of change?

I think of the dimensions of health like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each different colored piece of the pie has to be filled in before you can win the game. The same is true for overall wellness. So if you’re already strong with the piece that signifies physical wellness (even if you would like to lose that extra 5 pounds), but you’re struggling to obtain the piece for spiritual wellness, doesn’t it make more sense to focus your efforts in that area?

stick figureIn my stress management class, I sometimes use an activity from a text by Olpin and Hesson to assess balance in the different dimensions. Students get index cards and are asked to draw pictures of their bodies. The head represents the intellectual dimension; the trunk is the spiritual dimension; the arms are social and emotional, respectively; the legs are physical and occupational. If they feel balanced and healthy in a dimension, that body part is drawn so that it is in proportion to the rest of the body. If they feel that they overdo in some dimension, that body part will be outsize. And if there is an aspect of health that is lacking, the body part will look small compared to the rest.

If you do this exercise, are you wobbling from the imbalance? Is one leg shorter than the other? Is your head too big from overthinking everything? Let that be your guide to better new year’s resolutions. Sometimes making a change that no one else can immediately see is the missing piece. As Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Step away from the edge

When did we become such an extremist culture? If the word extremist sounds, well, extreme, consider the word moderate and you’ll know what I mean. No one wants to be moderate anymore, or to do anything in moderation. As a culture, we seek out the biggest, the newest, the richest, the edgiest, the most dangerous experience or position we can find.

On reality TV, we see people competing to lose the most weight or be the best chef. Marketers tell us we’ll be left behind if we don’t have the newest phone, and we line up to buy it. College students accept binge drinking as the norm, putting their health, safety and studies in danger. Congressmen put the nation at risk to score points and avoid compromise at all costs. And in our daily lives, our fear of not having every bit of the latest information makes us obsessively check texts and email.

Isn’t the competition exhausting, though? We often talk about managing our time, but not so much about managing our energy. In fact, our energy is a finite commodity too, and we would do well to think about how we want to use it. It’s very stressful be constantly competing, or fighting, or worrying about the meaning of a text message, or subjecting our bodies to excessive amounts of food, drink or even exercise.

Most of us are naturally somewhat competitive, and of course it’s nice to be the best at something, or to set goals for ourselves. But I’m reminded of the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In some areas of our lives, maybe we’d be happier to not have the best or be the best. Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, A Good Enough Parent, espoused this philosophy. Instead of striving to be the perfect parent of the perfect child, he advised that parents should be more attuned emotionally to their children so they could understand their relational needs. Instead of trying to mold a child into the one we want, help the child develop into the person he or she wants to be.

A focus on emotional awareness can serve us too, as we try to manage our energy. What do you need for yourself, in body, mind and spirit? Is it the newest phone or the most principled stance on an issue? Or are those things that you could let go? Do you need to lose more weight than your co-worker, or would losing a smaller amount be sufficient for you?

A recent study conducted at the University of Copenhagen showed that moderate exercise was actually more motivating than hard training was. The people who did 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise lost more weight than those who did 60 minutes of hard fitness training. The moderate group said they had more energy and were more motivated to make other healthy lifestyle changes, but those in the vigorous group were exhausted after their workout and less open to altering other habits. They had drained the energy they had for changing.

“Moderate” doesn’t have to mean boring or mediocre. It could just mean that you are using your energy within reasonable limits, for you, at this moment. At some other time, or in some other space, the choice might be different. How can you feel your best right now? Not the best of something or the best at something, but just the best and most content you?

Benjamin Disraeli once said that, “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation.” They’re not always at the edge.

Take it outside

There is joy in motion. It’s that simple. That feeling hit me today when I saw a photo in the paper of people doing Zumba outdoors. Their expressions are exuberant, their energy is contagious.


Outdoor exercise has a more free feeling than working out in a gym. Without the confines of walls and machines, something loosens inside. We take more chances, express ourselves more openly, lose some of our inhibitions. There’s also more of a sense of community, because we are physically in the community. And in some cases, the workouts are literally free – free yoga at the farmers’ market, free Zumba on the plaza and free Pilates in the parks.

Besides the individual benefits of outdoor, community exercise, public group workouts can demystify the practices for people who are unfamiliar with them. “Zumba”, “yoga”, “Pilates” – what do those words mean to someone who has never set foot in a gym or yoga studio? They sound like mysterious, esoteric practices that might be difficult and extreme. But when you see other people who look like you doing the moves, you begin to believe that you can do them too.

Americans are full of contradictions. We’re living longer than we did 20 years ago, but with more chronic conditions. Some of us are exercising more, but it’s not enough to keep the rates of obesity from rising. We’re not dying in accidents as much, but many more of us have diabetes. Complicated problems that require complex solutions, right? But while scientists are busy looking for treatments and technologies, we have the power to change our own trajectory. Rediscovering the joy in motion and the freedom of the outdoors can be part of that change.

My mother used to lock us out of the house sometimes when I was a kid. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In good weather, we were expected to play outside with other kids in the neighborhood; and if one of us came back in with dirty hands and feet, she wanted to know about it. Playing outside got me out of my head and out of my books for a while. It was during those summertime lockouts that I learned to take risks, like riding downhill on my bike without hands, and to play sports with the boys, and to see just how high we could get the playground swings to go.IMG

What childhood activity brought you that freewheeling joy? Summer might be an ideal time to find the feeling again, either as a way to get a fitness routine going, or to get out of a fitness rut. Look around you – those people dancing in the streets and posing like warriors in the farmers’ market are smiling for a reason.

Three “meals” a day for the soul

It makes sense that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help us sleep better at night and be more resilient in the face of stress. But consider the flip side: managing stress and sleeping well can support efforts to eat better and move more.

I recently spent a day counseling people on healthy eating, but I found myself more often than not talking with them about how much sleep they got, and what their stress levels were like. They invariably said that their jobs were stressful and the hours were long. They got home later than they would like, and found it challenging to think about preparing a healthy meal. The stressful day made them feel like they “deserved” the calorie-laden dinner. And by the time they ate, and spent a couple of hours winding down, they got to bed too late to get enough sleep. They often felt fatigued and low in energy.

Most of the people I talked to were relatively young and pretty healthy. But they were struggling with maintaining healthy behaviors in the face of increasingly demanding jobs and hectic lifestyles. Suggesting complicated or time-consuming changes won’t work for them. But what about something that takes only 5 minutes?

Spending 5 minutes once, twice or three times a day doing something that brings you back to the present moment, refreshes your mind, or relaxes your body, can be incredibly restorative. Most of all, in those few minutes, you’re engaged in caring for yourself. While the idea that you deserve care seems like it should be a no-brainer, many people have a hard time embracing it. But a practice that affirms your love and care for self can be the foundation for other health behaviors.

These 5-minute fortifiers come from many sources, including my own practice. Some are adapted from a little book called Five Good Minutes by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine. I have divided them into morning, day and evening practices:


  • Resist the urge to jump right out of bed. Stay still for a moment. Listen to the sounds outside and in your home. Smile. Set an intention for the day, such as being kinder to the people who challenge you.
  • Sing in the shower. As Brantley & Millstine say, “Music and song can make you feel giddy, bubbly, euphoric, and joyful.”
  • Slow down. Ever notice how when you rush, you are more likely to drop things, spill things, and make mistakes; and less likely to find things you need? Taking the extra two minutes to get ready with care will not make you later.


  • Breathe at the traffic lights. Too often when we’re rushing to get somewhere, especially in traffic, we chafe at the time spent waiting. Turn it into an opportunity to notice your breath. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly. You will feel calmer when the cars start to move again.
  • Take a break to look at nature. Whether it’s the view out your office window, or a picture on the wall, this practice will rest your eyes and your brain, and shift your perspective.IMG_0117
  • Eat lunch mindfully. Stop working for the time it takes to eat. Chew slowly, really taste the food and think of how it nourishes you.
  • Spend 5 minutes talking with a friend or family member outside of your work. Hearing the voice of someone who loves and cares for you helps ease the stress of the day.


Relaxing rituals in the evening help separate day from night and work from rest:

  • Make yourself a cup of herbal tea to warm and soothe you before bed.
  • Listen to some mellow music.
  • Give yourself a foot massage.
  • Read a favorite poem.
  • If you find yourself anxious with thoughts about work, imagine writing them down on pieces of paper. Then picture yourself walking to a nearby river and dropping each thought into the water, letting it drift away.

By tackling stress and sleep first, we put ourselves in a better place to make choices about eating and exercise. We change our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves, make caring for ourselves a routine, and have the energy to stick to a plan.

As Soren Kirkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

Go out and play!

Plato wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing allows us to take risks, to laugh at ourselves, to fall down, and to get back up. We discover truths about ourselves, as well as others.

Earlier this week, my yoga teacher announced at the beginning of class, “We’re just going to play today.” It was the last class there for most of us, since the yoga studio was closing at the end of the week. We all felt a little bittersweet about it, and by making the class more playful, our teacher helped us focus on the sweetness and joy rather than the sadness at the ending.

We went on to practice a lot of partner postures, flying postures and other fun stuff. We had to trust each other and give up some control in order to balance in the air on someone’s feet. Some of us found that easier than others, but there was laughter all around as we played together. And yes, I did learn more about my flying partner in that hour than I ever had by practicing yoga next to her.

Playing helps take us away from the stresses of “real” life, but it also prepares us for them. The first time I tried the trapeze, years ago, I was terrified. You have to stand with your toes hanging off the edge of a platform, high in the air, and lean forward to grab the swing with the assistant only holding onto your harness with a finger. I had to trust myself to reach for the swing as I stepped into the void, and know that there were only two possible outcomes. Either I would be successful, get a grip on the swing, pull my legs up over it, and fly through the air (with the greatest of ease?). Or I would miss the bar, fall into the safety net, and..….be okay. The only thing at risk was my ego.

Why do you think we use terms like “take the plunge” and “leap of faith” to describe life’s risk-taking? Those physical chances we take during play – diving into the deep end of the pool, and jumping off the trapeze — teach us that we will probably be okay even if we fail. By continuing to play as adults, we keep ourselves flexible (mentally and emotionally, as well as physically) and more able to deal with changes that come along.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Do we play enough? NO! Even kids don’t play in the traditional sense nearly as much as they used to. And adults are often so oriented to work and worried about the future that we forget to incorporate play into our lives. Deep down, though, we all want and need to play.

How can you start playing again? Try a Laughter Yoga class, where you can just be goofy and creative for an hour or two. If you’re near Washington D.C., check out an organization called “Spacious” that connects people around fun and play. Bring the Instant Recess program to your workplace. Play in the snow, dance in the street, go on a roller-coaster, ride a wave, or even try the trapeze. Re-discover that baseline joy that comes from letting go and trusting that everything will be okay.

Thanks, I’ll walk

Walking meditation, says Thich Nhat Hanh, “is really to enjoy the walking – walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk. The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step.” Instead of being on the way to someplace, it is the act of walking itself that is the purpose.

I’m in the middle of a book that inspires me to contemplate walking as meditation. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a recently retired man who gets a letter from a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years, telling him that she is dying of cancer. The letter disrupts the unhappy inertia of his life, and on the spur of the moment, he decides to walk hundreds of miles across England to see her before she dies.

When I started reading, I thought that this book would be just a lighthearted, quirky story. But it has turned out to be engaging, thought-provoking and touching. Harold changes on the journey, not only from being physically unprepared to being fit and able; but also in the way he views his life. At first he is tortured by memories of the past, and he doubts what he is doing; but the walk transforms him into someone who has hope.Pt Reyes Natl _03

Walking is the most recommended physical activity in the world, because it is accessible to almost everyone, and offers many health benefits. Among them is an increase in “well-being” in people who walk regularly. Walking promotes clear thinking, and gives people an opportunity to notice their thoughts and feelings. Its ability to integrate sensory experience, motor skills and brain activity make it a part of psychotherapy for some mental health practitioners.

While it is possible to walk mindfully as you walk for exercise, walking meditation means paying attention to the walking itself: the sound your feet make as they touch the ground, the rhythm of your steps, the sound of your breath. Gradually you might find that your breath becomes regular and paces itself with your footsteps, for example 3 steps for each inhale and 4 steps for each exhale. Jon Kabat-Zinn says about walking meditation, “The challenge is, can you be fully with this step, with this breath?”Labyrinth-with-Pilgrim

Another way to do a walking meditation is to walk in a labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used for thousands of years as a way to clear the mind and find answers to questions. They are often found on the grounds of churches or other religious centers, or in places of health and healing. A labyrinth consists of concentric circles leading to a center; you walk around the spiral to the center and then retrace your steps on the way out. It is a metaphor for the spiritual journey inward. At the labyrinth near my house, there is a quote from St. Augustine: “It is solved by walking.”

I don’t know yet if Harold Fry will solve the unhappiness of his life by the end of his journey, or the end of the book. While I wonder what will happen, I’m savoring each chapter as I go. I do know that what he has learned already is this: He doesn’t need to be in a hurry to arrive at his destination, because at each moment of the journey he is arriving somewhere.

Something to teach, something to learn

Today I learned that my new yoga teacher is about to be a high school senior. I knew she was young, but not that young. She had just led us through a vinyasa flow class that was challenging, yet gentle; energetic, yet calming. Everyone thought it was great.

I am amazed by the grace and composure of this 17-year-old. When I think back to myself at that age, I can’t imagine even doing what she does, let alone doing it so well.

What makes a good teacher? Passion, confidence, knowledge? Along with those attributes, I believe that a good teacher cares deeply about her students, demonstrates it, and has the wisdom to know that there is as much to learn from them as there is to teach to them.

We benefit most as students when we let go of any expectations we have about what our teacher should be. Age, sex and size don’t define a talented yoga teacher, just as degrees and credentials don’t define talent in a college professor. Losing the words “should”, “ought”, and “must” from our vocabulary opens the door to invaluable experiences, and prevents a lot of the stress that comes from the belief that situations have to evolve in a certain way. Opening that door prepares us to engage, learn and make the most of what life, and our teachers, offer.

Certainly I used to be more rigid than I am today. From my children, I learned to be patient and adaptable. From my older relatives, I learned about dignity. From my friends, I learned to be compassionate and understanding. From my neighbors, I learned about community. From difficult people, I learned to forgive and let go.

Perhaps the most self-discovery comes when the lines between teacher and student blur, and we realize that there is something to be learned from everyone we meet. Every interaction is an opportunity to uncover something we already knew, but weren’t seeing. I only hope that I am able to touch other people the way my new yoga teacher touches me.

Seize the day

Good time management can help most of us avoid a lot of stress. Setting goals, planning out the day ahead of time, and working during our most high-energy hours can lead to greater productivity, less time pressure and a calmer life. Sometimes, though, it’s best to let serendipity win out over planning.

Case in point: yesterday was a gorgeous day. It was one of those days where the sky is a completely cloudless, brilliant blue. The day was warm, but the humidity was low. It was the best day we had had, or were going to have, this entire week.

So when my friend said to me after a morning yoga class, “What are you doing today? Let’s get something to eat and then take a long walk – it’s so beautiful today!” I barely hesitated. It’s true that thoughts of my to-do list, and the vague commitments I had for the day did cross my mind. But I quickly realized that there was nothing so pressing that it couldn’t be done later in the day, or even the next day.

The word “serendipity” is a difficult one to define and translate, but it essentially means discovering something by accident while looking for something else, or finding something wonderful when we weren’t looking for it at all.  It’s possible to let serendipity play a role in daily time management, just by being aware of, and open to, the opportunities and beautiful moments that might turn up in the course of the day. Michael Olpin and Margie Hesson, in their text on stress management, suggest ‘split-page scheduling’ – dividing your planner page with a line down the middle, listing your plans, activities and appointments down the left side, and leaving the right side blank until the end of the day. Then you use the right side to record the unpredicted moments that arose during the day, such as “a new acquaintance, a fresh idea, a child’s question, an unexpected opportunity, a friend’s need, a chance meeting, a beautiful sunset.”

By opening ourselves to a certain amount of spontaneity in the day, we have the possibility of becoming more creative, experiencing life more fully, and even choosing to take new directions. We allow ourselves to enjoy the journey more, while not losing sight of the destination.

Yesterday, I spent a few lovely hours with my friend, walking and talking. We learned more about each other, enjoyed the fresh air and exercise, and came home hungry and tired. Even with my sore feet (lesson learned: don’t walk 4 miles in flip-flops), I still felt invigorated when I got home. I was able to get some of my work done, I enjoyed the process of preparing dinner more than usual, and I slept well. It felt like a day well-lived.

Look to this day!

For it is life, the very life of life.

In its brief course

Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:

The bliss of growth;

The glory of action;

The splendor of achievement;

For yesterday is but a dream,

And tomorrow is only a vision;

But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day!

“Kalidasa,” ancient Sanskrit poem

My week with sea turtles

For most of the year, I don’t willingly get up before sunrise. But for one week every summer, I gladly rise before dawn and leave the house while everyone else is still sleeping. I do it for the sake of sea turtles, serving on the volunteer turtle patrol at a South Carolina beach.

For me, being on turtle patrol means that I get up when it’s still dark, walk two miles along the beach, meet interesting people who also care about wildlife, watch the sun come up, and just maybe, give a few turtles a head start in life. That’s worth getting up early for.

Sea turtles are endangered, due to loss of habitat, fishing activity, predation and being hit by boats. In response, natural resource agencies and beachfront communities around the world have developed programs to give baby sea turtles a helping hand. Think of it as leveling the playing field to make up for the human role in their endangerment.

In my community, volunteers go out each morning during nesting season to look for mother turtles’ tracks and mark where their nests are laid. Then the hatching patrol takes over, checking the nests each morning to make sure they are undisturbed, and looking for signs of hatching when the time draws near.

This morning I was practically alone on the beach when I went out. It had been raining all night, but it stopped just as I got to the beach. As I walked along, I saw deer bounding through the dunes and ghost crabs scurrying into their holes. There were no signs of predators near the nests, but crabs, raccoons and coyotes are all potential threats to the sea turtle eggs.

As the nests hatch, the baby turtles have more hazards to overcome on their way to the ocean – they can be eaten by birds, fall into holes people leave in the sand, and go in the wrong direction toward  lights from houses.  Many don’t survive the trip across the beach to the sea.

After we see that a nest has hatched, we wait three days, and then dig down into the hole to see how many eggs hatched, and if any live turtles are still inside, perhaps too weak to dig their way out. Volunteers take these turtles down closer to the water, and let them crawl out until a wave catches them and they start swimming. Usually a crowd of people gathers, and everyone clears a path for the turtles, shoos away the birds, and cheers when the turtles finally swim away with their little heads bobbing up for air.

It’s impossible to start the day with anything but a smile after witnessing something like that. I head back to the house where others are just beginning to stir, ready for coffee and breakfast, sandy, sweaty and hot, but knowing that I might have just spent the most valuable hour of my day.