Stressed? 10 Ways to Take a 1-minute ME Break

Before you start reading:
Take a deep breath in and let it out slowly.
Do that one more time.
Now a third time, paying attention to the air that’s moving through your body.
Congratulations! You just helped to reduce the level of stress hormone (cortisol) in your system.

The more stressed we are, the more likely we are to be impatient, think negatively, and have less empathy for those around us. We become unhappy with people and things more easily. Our threshold for tolerance and coping goes down. And (you guessed it) this makes it more likely that we’ll complain.

Often we can’t control our circumstances, but we can adjust our responses to them. I’m sure you know that things like hiking, sleeping, and getting a massage are great for reducing stress. But when we’re really busy (as many/most of us are these days), it can seem impossible to take the time for proper breaks. So here are 10 stress-relieving “Micro-Exercises” (ME) that take one minute or less, and will add up to help calm your nervous system, reducing the levels of negative hormones while increasing the positive hormones in your body. ME Breaks will help you feel better and can even affect how you think, your level of creativity, and your ability to connect with others.

You just did the first one, so you’re off to a good start!

1: Take deep breaths. That old adage of taking deep breaths and counting to ten when you’re upset is a good one. It’s most effective if you can place your focus on the breath itself, feeling the physical sensation of air coming in through your nose and filling your lungs, then slowly breathing out through the mouth. Try to sense the flow of air across your tongue, teeth and lips.

2: Smile. Yup. That’s it. Just smile. It’s true that feeling good will make us smile, but the cool thing is the reverse is also true. In super-unscientific terms: Studies have shown that smiling triggers the “happy parts” of our brain. Turns out our brain interprets our expressions, so we can trick it by assuming the expression we want to feel. Smile first, feel better as a result. (On a related note: Pay attention to your facial muscles/expression when you’re doing things like working on a computer. If looking at a screen makes you squint, your brain thinks you’re frowning and that can contribute to your sense of frustration.)

man in victory pose3: Stand like Wonder Woman or throw up your hands in victory. Often times we feel the most stressed when things feel out of control. In another use-your-body-to-trick-your-brain maneuver, you can assume the position of someone who has control. Stand up with your feet about shoulder-width apart, put your hands on your hips, breathe to fill your chest with your back slightly arched. That’s the Wonder Woman pose. Or you could act like someone who’s just won a competition: Punch your fists in the air, or throw both hands up with your fingers stretched wide. You have the body of someone who’s confident and in control, and your brain will relay that feeling back to you. (Another related note: If you spend a lot of time looking down at your phone, your body is communicating a pose of defeat or exhaustion. Look up and pull your shoulders back as often as possible.)

woman looking at houseplan4: Look at plants, especially flowers. Often in our modern world we spend days without seeing plants, except (perhaps) those on our plates. Numerous studies now have demonstrated what gardeners have known for ages: Looking at plants makes you feel better. Have indoor plants in your home or workplace, or a find a window that overlooks a park or even a single tree. Periodically focus on them (it doesn’t really do much if you’re just glancing at plants without attention). You’ll get an even bigger boost from looking at flowers, and there’s another bump for having flowers somewhere that you’ll see them in the morning. The best (of course) is if you can walk around somewhere surrounded by plants and flowers and just let your mind wander. If you don’t have the time, though, try to get some flowers or living plants indoors and spend 30-60 seconds looking at them when you need a moment of chill.

5: Savor food and drink. That cup of coffee on your desk or the sandwich you have in one hand while the other is on the keyboard can be more than simply fuel or an unconscious habit. Just before putting food or drink in your mouth, take a moment to look at it and remind yourself of what you’re doing, e.g., “I’m eating a sandwich” or “I’m drinking coffee.” Then consciously choose to open your mouth and try to fully feel and taste the food or drink as it enters your mouth. Look away from the screen or anything distracting while you’re doing this. As you swallow, feel its passage down your throat and consider that this is going to be converted into usable energy to keep you going. If you can, let yourself be amazed by that chemical conversion happening without you having to control it. Let yourself feel grateful for the food, the drink, and for the work your gut does to keep the rest of your body going.

6: Listen to nothing in particular. Modern life means a nearly constant bombardment of stimulation and information. Sometimes what we need to be truly creative and relaxed is to take a break from taking any more in, to give space to what’s in our own minds already. Many people automatically put on music whenever they’re not absorbed in a conversation or watching something, but even “calming” music is more information, contributing to the sense of overload. The brain needs space to breathe. Turn off the music/news/whatever in the car, take off the headphones on the train. Listen to what’s around you or just to your own breath. Let your mind wander. Sometimes we’re in distracting environments where it’s not calming to just listen, such as the office or a noisy cafe. If you have a smartphone, get a white noise app. Listen to that instead of music when you need to take an aural break.

7: Look at a calming image or recall a happy memory. Stress, anger, frustration, fear – when we’re feeling these, our brains are wired to focus on problems, narrowing our band of attention. Happiness, calm, excitement – in these states our attention is widened and our focus is open, able to take in more different kinds of information. If you’re feeling locked in a negative state, simply telling yourself to be happy or calm doesn’t work. However, reminding yourself of a time that you were happy or looking at something that you find calming fires up the neural pathways in your brain associated with that positive memory or image, widening your attention. This can then help you more easily make a conscious shift out of a negative narrow focus.

glass of water 8: Drink a glass of water. Most of us are a little dehydrated and it’s easy to forget to take care of our bodies when we’re stressed. Get up, pour yourself a glass of water, and drink it very consciously – meaning put your focus on the water and the act of drinking it. Give your mind a rest and refresh your body at the same time.

9: Get and give a hug. One of the best ways to combat stress is to increase your body’s level of oxytocin, a hormone most easily released through non-sexual touch that communicates connection, like hugging or holding hands. So when you’re stressed, if it’s available and appropriate, ask someone for a hug. Neurochemically, it’s best if that hug can last 30 seconds, but even a short hug will help. Oxytocin can also be released when you hug or pet an animal like a dog or cat. Often, though, we’re stressed at work or other places where hugs and pets are not readily available. In those situations, you can still get some oxytocin going by hugging yourself. Cross your arms and give yourself a squeeze. Work your hands up and down your arms, continuing to squeeze. At the same time, think comforting thoughts and be aware that you’re doing something good to take care of yourself at that moment.

10: Step outside. Sometimes we need a dose of sunlight. Sometimes we need to breath deeply in fresh air. Sometimes we need to move our bodies around. Sometimes we don’t know what we need but a change of scenery sounds nice. For these reasons and more, spend a little time outside. Best if you can take a walk, move around. Keep your phone in your pocket and don’t put on your headphones. Just be outside. Swing your arms. Stretch a little. If you’re walking, exaggerate your steps by lifting your heels a little extra or raising your knees high. Basically: Remember you have a body and let it move a little.

stretching at window ThinkstockPhotos-7261709411*: Do Micro-Exercise Bundles. Look at flowers while taking deep breaths. Think of a happy memory while you’re hugging yourself. Eat your lunch outside in the garden. Smile while you stand tall. You get the idea.

The effects of the individual Micro-Exercises are small, but they add up. Do them regularly, and you should find that your stress level overall will decrease and you’ll be able to stay calm more easily.

Now you’re done reading and that was a long one.
Isn’t it time for a ME Break right now?


References are many, but I’ll call your attention to the work of Amy Cuddy, Chögyam TrungpaKimber Simpkins, Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley

*This post goes to 11!


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Your Choice Upon Arrival

Why do so many of us complain the moment we arrive somewhere? Whether it’s about the traffic or parking or weather or whatever, so often upon arrival we say hello and immediately launch into complaints.

I know sometimes we complain to explain our lateness, passing the blame onto circumstance. But people do this even when they aren’t late, or where being late is no problem, such as at a party.

I’ve even heard people open with a complaint when arriving for an interview or a networking dinner. What is the value of having someone’s first impression of you be a negative one? Why are we ok with communicating that we can’t plan ahead or take responsibility for our circumstances? How does complaining support a positive view of who you are?

Often it seems to be habit, a standardized conversation opener that feels “safe” because everyone does it. The impulse is to say something when you walk in and without any knowledge of the flow of conversation in the room (because you just arrived) you talk about what’s on your mind.

But just because complaining is normal or standard doesn’t mean you have to do it. It’s conversational laziness. Instead, the next time you’re arriving somewhere, choose what impression you want to make when you enter the room, and then open with a conversation topic which supports that.Choosing Your First Impression

Before you enter, take a moment to think about something positive before knocking or opening the door. It could be something small that you noticed on the walk up, or big like a topic you’re excited to talk about. If you were listening to a podcast or reading, you can make an observation about an aspect that you found fascinating or that made you think about something else. Or you can ask what the conversation was before you entered, refocusing back to others so you can join (not interrupt) their flow.

Because you’re just arriving, you can choose to start whatever kind of conversation you want. Why not choose something that enlivens you and gives others a positive impression of who you are and how you think?

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A Love Letter to My Inner Critic

SteamHeartMexture2IMG_6053My Dearest Inner Critic,

I really love you. I know that might not sound so healthy considering all the mean ways you talk to me, but hear me out.

At first I didn’t love you.
I hated you. And I was afraid of you.

From the beginning you shamed me and scolded me and belittled me. It seemed you enjoyed pointing out what I did wrong and examining every little moment over and over. And it wasn’t a childlike teasing kind of thing. You knew all my insecurities and you went after them. You had a few favorite topics but it seemed like anything about me could be a target given the right mood. Listening to you, I felt so small and stupid.

I tried to live up to your impossible standards in the hope that you’d stop yelling at me, but you never did. You just got more demanding with every new achievement. You always wanted more. Even if I did well at something, you’d point out the flaws and insist that I do better next time.

At times I’d fight back and refuse to do what you demanded of me. Then my life would fall apart and I’d start to feel guilty. So I’d pick up the pieces while you strode around me with that haughty look on your face, grumbling about my poor choices.

I got so tired of you. I tried to avoid you but… well… you’re inside my head so it’s impossible. I tried to blot you out with TV, sex, alcohol… the relief was always temporary. As soon as I returned to regular life you’d be there. Only now you had even more ammunition. You’d question whether or not I had the strength to stop checking out. You challenged my willpower. You kept harping that I’d never achieve what I want if I kept that up. I had to agree and I felt even weaker.

I know you know this but I have to say it: A couple of times you really got to me. I believed that all the things you said about me were the most true things in the world and I felt worthless. Worse than that. I felt hopeless. That’s why I damaged my body and thought about getting rid of it altogether. When I did that you got really quiet. I thought for sure I’d finally found a way to shut you up and so I continued injuring myself. I’m not sure you knew why I was doing it. That physical pain was so much easier to take than your scorn. I thought it was a contest and I had won.

But that wasn’t the reason for your silence back then, was it? You didn’t feel defeated. You realized you’d gone too far. I agree, but I’m surprised that you knew it. I’m not shocked that you crossed the line – I’m caught off guard realizing that you actually had a line, that there was a “too far” for you to go.

For so many years I thought you couldn’t stand me, that you hated me. I was sure you thought I’d never be of value in this world. But it was never your intention for me to feel worthless, was it? All that time you were trying to help me. I can see that you were pushing me because you wanted the best for me, not because you wanted to tear me down. You knew I wanted certain things and all that yelling was your version of coaching me. You thought you were being supportive.

I feel like I’m opening my eyes and seeing you for the first time. You had faith in me. You believed in me and that’s why you pushed me to try harder. You knew I felt bad when I broke a resolve so you scolded me to try to get me to keep it.

You were afraid for me. You had dreams for me. You loved me and wanted others to love me. You even tried to keep me from doing the things that I fear will push people away.

You’re sweet. Clumsy and heavy-handed, but sweet.

I have so much gratitude for all that you’ve tried to do for me through all these years. You’ve never left my side and I know you’ve seen me at my worst! It’s a little overwhelming to think about how much faith you have in me. You have really high hopes for me. You’re doing all this because you think I’m worth it. I do love you for that and I’ve been trying to take it in since I realized it.

One thing, though. Can I make a request? I have to tell you that it’s really hard for me if — when you’re trying to encourage me — you are cruel, or belittle me, or poke at where I feel shame. I appreciate you pushing me (I know I need it sometimes) but I can’t accept you tearing me down any more. Can you find a way to talk to me that feels supportive? It might take a while to figure out what that means, but we can work on it together.

I promise to keep in mind the understanding that you’re trying to help me, and I’m going to guess that I’ll find it easier to listen if you still get mean in the future. It’s probably not going to hurt me so much, but know that I’m going to push back if I feel like you’re tearing me down. At a minimum, I’m going to ask you to wait until I’m ready for it.

I recognize that there’s value in what you’re saying, that you are good at finding things I can improve in the future. I also know that you’re very focused on making sure I don’t fall behind on my plans. It’s true sometimes I need a little extra motivation. When you start slinging mud I’m going to keep trying to pick out the gems buried in it.

I also promise to pay particular attention when your voice starts getting really urgent and shrill. I understand now that it’s a signal that you’re afraid of something and I’ll take a closer look. If it’s real, I’m going to be so grateful to you for pointing it out. Sometimes, though, you still get triggered by a fear of something that hurt me a long time ago. I know you don’t want me to get hurt again but you need to trust that I’ve learned a lot and that I’m not the same person I was all those years ago. I’m stronger now and I can handle it. More importantly, I ask you to accept that it’s inevitable that I’m going to get hurt sometimes. I can’t live life avoiding things out of fear of failing. I need to try new things, meet new people, learn new skills. I’m not always going to get it right and I’m going to screw things up and I’m going to get hurt. That’s life. I’m not going to get reckless, but I am going to be alive and I’d rather have you along with me than attempt to push you away again.

We’re probably going to get into bumpy patches in the future. Every relationship does. We’ll have the old struggles, and I’ll get frustrated and down on myself. We’ll both get exhausted with each other. But I’m going to try to remember to thank you, to try to remember that you’re attempting to help. I’m going to work on not getting so down that I can’t pick myself back up again.

I know that underneath everything, you’re trying to push me towards things I already want for myself. You’re part of me and so the only desires you have are my own. It means that your fears and insecurities are mine, too, including that overwhelming feeling that I need to do certain things to be worthy of love. I’m trying on the idea that I’m worthy just as I am. And that means you, too, are already worthy just as you are.

It’s really nice to feel how much you want for me. If I ever needed proof that I can be loved by someone who knows all my flaws intimately, I need look no farther than at you. Which means I just need to look in the mirror. I’m grateful for that. That’s why I’ll always love you, Inner Critic. Thank you.

—me

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Blame

None of us enjoys the feeling of having disappointed someone. Sometimes we face disappointment from others, and sometimes we’ve disappointed ourselves. Either way, we don’t like the feeling.

Disappointments can be large or small. We might forget to do something we said we would, or fail to meet a deadline, or not do as well as we hoped, or we might arrive late. We might realize we’ve made poor choices and not feel ready to take the responsibility for them.

This is exactly when the brain starts searching for some way to deflect blame. Many will choose to start complaining about circumstances and other people in hopes it will distract the disappointed party or disperse the blame.

  • We blame our overloaded schedule for our forgetfulness.
  • We blame broken technology for causing us to miss a deadline.
  • We blame a corrupt evaluation system for our disappointing results.
  • We blame traffic for making us late.
  • We blame coworkers for not doing their part.
  • We blame children for making us too tired.
  • We blame spouses for not being supportive.
  • We blame bosses for creating stressful environments.
  • We blame the weather for keeping us from exercising.
  • We blame Other People And Things for Whatever Happened.

In the practice of NoCo, blaming is a type of complaining because it’s another way that we talk as if we don’t have responsibility. We might think that it helps justify our mistakes and therefore improves how others think of us. In our minds we are less at fault and therefore less of a disappointment.

In reality, however, it erodes others’ confidence in us. If we blame others for our actions, we sound like we consider ourselves powerless. We sound like we can’t solve problems. We cause others to wonder if we also blame them behind their backs, and their trust in us starts to erode. They are less likely to want us to be part of their team.

While it might temporarily lessen others’ disappointment in us in the short term, blaming projects a future in which more disappointment is likely to happen.

Going NoCo means that we interrupt this pattern and start taking responsibility. Sometimes the source of these complaints is legitimate, but we recognize they only contributed to the end result. Going NoCo means we also take responsibility for our part.

  • We recognize that we over-scheduled ourselves and that we didn’t set a reminder.
  • We recognize that we waited until the last minute and didn’t leave buffer time to deal with mechanical problems.
  • We know we can’t expect to succeed every time and seek to learn from it to do better next time.
  • We leave earlier to avoid traffic, choose an alternative route, or re-schedule.
  • We find out if our coworkers had the resources and information they needed, and if we communicated our expectations clearly.
  • We recognize that a risk of being a parent is being under-slept, that we should anticipate that possibility in our plans whenever we can.
  • We change how we’re asking for support from our spouses and find out what kind of support they are available for.
  • We collaborate with our bosses and/or coworkers to find ways to reduce stress at work.
  • We get appropriate clothes for exercising outside, or develop an indoor workout routine.
  • We see that our own choices contribute to everything that we do.

And sometimes figuring out the cause and planning for next time isn’t what’s needed in the moment. Sometimes the right thing is just to apologize and feel that disappointment.

If we can use this as a motivator to change our choices in the future, then over time we’ll find that it’s easier to accept greater responsibility. We stop blaming and start owning our choices and we become increasingly trustworthy in the eyes of others — and ourselves.

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The Mood of a Resolution

Here’s a question you may not have asked yourself:
While you’re deciding on a goal or making a resolution, what mood are you in?

Resolutions and goals usually involve choices about which bad habits to break and which good ones you’ll try to establish. Did you know your mood can affect the decisions you make? When it comes to goal setting, this can affect your likelihood of success as a result.

Consider the difference in mood between:

    I’m sick of feeling/being [____________]. I’m going to [____________] instead. It’ll be tough, but no excuses!

vs.

    If I were to [____________] then I could feel/be/achieve/have [____________]! It will take work, but it’s worth it!

Either formulation can be motivating. But the first relies on determination while the second relies on inspiration. This means the first requires energy to maintain while the second can give you energy to keep going.

That’s not all. There’s a hidden gem in the second formulation. It revolves around what researchers have discovered is at the heart of every good & bad habit: we are craving something.

Habits form when a certain cue triggers an anticipation that we’ll get something we crave, most powerfully a physical or emotional reward.

Then we do the habit and get the reward, our craving is satisfied (however briefly) and now the next time we see/experience that cue we can anticipate that we’ll get that reward – and a routine becomes established. This establishes a Habit Loop, and it can be hard to see it coming.

“Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence… to overpower the habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior.” [Charles Duhigg]

To break a habit we need to find/create alternate routines that can fulfill that craving. And we need to either add new cues to trigger the new routine, or re-interpret existing cues to trigger new routines (e.g., walk a new route to work, or see the donut shop on our usual route and not go in).

Re-interpretation can be harder to do, so we need to remind ourselves that this work is worth it. And that’s where the inspiration comes in handy. If you’re doing something that’s already hard for you, relying on a difficult requirement (discipline!) adds to the load. But inspiration (aka purpose!) can help carry you through the difficult parts. (e.g., “I said no donut!” vs. “My body feels better and my morning is easier without a sugar crash!”)

Finally, when you’re in the act of deciding on which goal to pursue, it’s easier to think of an inspiration formulation that will work for you when you’re in a positive, creative, and constructive mood.

“We cannot feel good about an imaginary future while we are busy feeling bad about the present.” [Dan Gilbert]

So when you’re making goals, try to pay attention to the mood you’re in while you’re making them. Don’t be in a rush, frustrated, or hungry. Give yourself some time, take some deep breaths, and taste something that gives you pleasure. These little things can help shift you into a more positive mood, which can then lead to greater creativity, and that will help you be able to figure out what you’re craving and what can inspire you.

Hiker Taking Lunch

—-
references:

Richard J. Davidson & Sharon Begly,The Emotional Life of Your Brain

Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

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