Mindfulness Tips to Maximize your Health and Well-Being During this Hectic Holiday Season
It’s starting to be that time again – the most wonderful time of the year! However, the most wonderful time often finds you at your most run down, stressed, and exhausted. It is the season you are more likely to overcommit, over-indulge, and put everyone first but yourself, leaving you frustrated, worn out, and anxious by the time the new year rolls around. Because stress taxes our ability to be creative and fully take in all the wonderful experiences and memories being made all around us, now is the time and t’is the season to prioritize your self care!
So, how do you get rid of stress in your life? How do you will yourself to calm down, relax, breathe, and take in each and every moment? Well, studies have shown that, contrary to what we think, stress is PURELY chemical and is triggered by the limbic system, which means that the problem is not the stress itself, but how the limbic system interprets the data it receives. In other words, we CAN change it! For this reason, in order to combat our stress, we must train the limbic system to take the information it receives from our five senses and interpret it in a way that sends the data up to the neocortex instead of down to the brain stem. We rely on the neocortex for creativity, compassion, clear decision making, and general happiness, whereas the brain stem carries a build up of cortisol, the chemical that manifests as stress.
Okay, enough with the science lesson. How do we achieve this? What are some easy and effective ways to incorporate more self care into our daily routines? The next few paragraphs are dedicated to three lifestyle habits that have been effectively proven to lower our stress and help us indulge in the self care we so deserve. These “mindfulness” practices – sleep, a well balanced, nutritious diet, and yoga, can help alter the chemical makeup in our bodies to release serotonin and endorphins – the ability to think clearly and feel better – instead of cortisol. But first, a little background.
What is mindfulness anyway? You may have heard this buzzword recently. . . mindfulness. But what is it exactly, if not just a fancy term thrown around among health gurus and fancy yoga practitioners?
Mindfulness is defined as living in the present moment, while calmly acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. These techniques are great tools to manage stress, improve sleep, and avoid illness.
There are many things in our world today that exacerbate stress and chaos in the mind and body. Media multitasking, for example. Contrary to popular belief, the MORE you multitask, the WORSE you actually become at it. To achieve mindfulness and combat stress, we must embrace the beauty of mono-tasking. For starters, this means, get off your cell phone! According to a study done by neuroscientist, Earl Miller, every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, a switch cost occurs: aka, the brain stumbles, and it is hard to get back to where it was before the distraction occurred. When your brain becomes accustomed to checking a device every few minutes, it will struggle to stay on task even when it is not interrupted by digital alerts. So, not only will constantly checking a media device take away time with loved ones, it is also proven to snatch the gray matter in the section of our brain that is involved with thought and emotion control! WHAT! Additionally, it is associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and poor sleep.
Which brings us to our first stress-free solution: Sleep.
Sleep is vital for rehabilitation of the body, mind, and spirit. Without sleep, the susceptibility to illness, fatigue, anxiety, stress, and brain fog is much more present.
Research shows that establishing a repeatable, nightly routine that is most conducive to a sound sleep will help the body fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. Some ideas for a nightly routines are as follows, but you can get creative and make up your own routine that is convenient for your daily life! Have fun with it!
Eat a light meal 2 hours before bed, shut off electronics one hour before sleeping, establish a repeatable and consistent evening routine including taking a bath or shower, stretching, drinking tea, observing your day and extending gratitude for the events that unfolded. In addition to a consistent evening routine, you can choose activities during the day that will aid in a sound sleep at night. These include getting exercise and spending time in natural light, as artificial light throws off the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Also, avoiding caffeine after noon, feeling fulfilled during the day by doing the things that make you feel happy and productive, and finally, eating well rounded, nutritious meals made up of organic, whole ingredients.
Nutrition is a huge component to lowering stress and achieving mindfulness.
Nourishing the body with the nutrients it needs will allow us to not only survive, but thrive. While the trend is just beginning to shift, the average American tends to more readily reach for the sugary, highly processed, “fast” food, out of convenience, affordability, and pleasure. However, this abundance of fast food, sugar, and caffeine can lead to very low quality of living: poor sleep, excessive stress, breakouts, low immune system, foggy brain, sluggishness, weight gain, etc. We need to shift this trend and get behind the idea of mindful and plant-based eating simply for the good of our own bodies and the well being of the environment around us. This refers to eating seasonal, local produce when available and living in a way that is mindful of the connection between the source of our food and the nourishment it provides to our body. Basically, it means understanding where our foods come from and being curious and inquisitive about the process. Eating seasonal, local produce, as close to its most natural state keeps you in tune with the seasons and by extension, your own inner needs. It also guarantees that you are eating foods in their most nutritious and beneficial state.
When it comes to a plant-based diet, this simply means getting most of your nourishment from plant-based, whole foods: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds – foods that are in their simplest state. Not necessarily following a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, but simply limiting our intake of meat, and being mindful of where and how we acquire it, which is better for our bodies as well as the environment.
Of course, with everything in life there is a balance. Strictly depriving yourself of foods you love will only backfire in the long run. It is important to maintain a balance between eating and buying healthy foods and indulging in your favorite treat every once in awhile. The most important takeaway is the concept of eating mindfully. As previously discussed, mindful eating involves paying attention to what your body needs and what it doesn’t. It means becoming curious about your internal cues and asking your body what it really wants. Is it food? Or is it water, sleep, exercise or something else? By promoting self compassion, you may inhibit stress eating. The quality of foods you eat and the attention you give to the act deeply affects your health and consciousness, as well as your digestive system, allowing your body to detox, eliminate, and rebuild immune function as efficiently as possible.
One final way to combat stress, focus on breathing, and work toward a state of mindfulness in your everyday life is a consistent yoga practice.
Yoga is a powerful tool designed to rejuvenate the spirit and prolong life using radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind by breaking the knots that bind us to our physical existence (Elise Greig, Saptarshi Ray). It focuses on the exploration of the physical-spiritual connections and body centered practices, which is exactly what the concept of mindfulness urges us to do: become more aware and in tune with our body, breath and emotional thought processes.
Yoga is said to counteract depression and anxiety and is often practiced as a therapeutic tool. It encourages you to tune into your sensations and give your body gratitude for the multitude of things it allows you to do each day. When practicing yoga, the mind is occupied on strength, serenity, and space, instead of all the tiny worries and anxieties that we carry with us throughout the day. It is a chance to breathe, to decompress, to practice mindfulness and be present in our sensations.
So, as this holiday season approaches and you find yourself beginning to crumble under the weight of the shopping, cooking, driving, conversing, gift buying, party going, decorating, the list goes on – stop. Light a candle and take a bath before bed, make yourself a green smoothie before running out to all the errands, take a yoga class, and above all, acknowledge you. Forgive yourself, don’t be so hard on yourself, love yourself. Show up for you. It is so, so important.