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5 Intention-setting Ideas for Helping Kids Reduce Anxiety

Each May, I feel it is so important to promote Mental Health Awareness month, as it is a belief of mine (backed by recent research) that when we support the health of the brain/mind, our bodies respond in kind.

This year I would like to focus on the 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute, reflecting on the significant increase in child and adolescent anxiety disorders.  Below are some of the highlights:

  • In the past 10 years, there has been increasing recognition of anxiety in young people by health care providers, including a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnosis.  Yet anxiety symptoms are minimized or ignored. As little as 1% of youth with anxiety seek treatment in the year symptoms begin.
  • At some point, anxiety affects 30% of children and adolescents, yet 80% never get help.
  • Untreated anxiety disorders are linked to depression, school failure and a two-fold increase in risk for substance use disorder and suicide.
  • The average age of onset for Separation Anxiety Disorder and specific phobias is age 11.
  • The average age on onset for Social Anxiety Disorder is age 14.
So, even if we don’t have children of our own, all of us interact with children at some point, whether we see them while taking a walk or shopping at the supermarket.  How might we help?  Below are some intention-setting ideas you might consider modeling as body-mind self-care tools known to reduce anxiety.  You never know when a child is watching, listening, and learning!
  1. Practice Relaxation Exercises.  If your begin to feel yourself getting stressed out over something, maybe you get stuck in traffic or you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work (think homework!) ahead of you, consider cutting off the stress-to-anxiety circuitry by taking a breather!  Bee’s breath is a fun one that kid’s love because they get to make sounds and visualize themselves flying back home to the ‘family hive’ for a sweet treat.  Take a few moments to learn how to do it yourself and add it to your toolkit to do in front of your kids, inviting them to join you to clear their minds and soothe their bodies.
  2. Face Your Fears.  We all have them, whether we are afraid of spiders or dogs or flying or thunder and lightning or being alone.  Knowing that fear is part of the basic human condition brings with it some comfort in understanding we are not alone in this experience.  So, if we can admit we have one and then take a step towards our fear (instead of running away from it), we model our ability to experience both fear and confidence in our ability to conquer our fear.  And, don’t forget to reward yourself afterwards to provide additional motivation to lean into our fears, reminding ourselves that fear is an emotion that will pass if we let it.
  3. Mindfulness.  Anxiety arises when the mind gets caught in the ‘what if’ loop, whether about the future or the past.  So, helping the mind to break that loop, by focusing on the present moment for even a few moments, will help in reducing the level of anxiety.  Again, we can do this with our children so they learn this self-care tool from us.  Consider practicing right now – sit comfortably and begin to allow the awareness of the mind to focus on all of your senses.  Maybe start with the sense of touch, where the body is connected to something whether the ground beneath the feet or the body resting in the chair.  Move to what your eyes can see, noticing the colors and textures of the items in your view.  What might you be smelling or tasting?What do you hear – perhaps noticing the sounds in the distance first and then moving to the sounds closest to you.  Last, you might consider allowing yourself to sense into the body and simply labeling what you might be feeling, such as tension in a part of your body, or a temperature, or even a sense of that fear or anxiety.  Practicing this together once a day, even when you are not feeling anxious (perhaps right before going to bed) for a minute or two will give the gift of mindfulness for a lifetime!
  4. Self-talk.  We all talk to ourselves and setting an intention to be more transparent with it can be transforming.  Consider talking out loud, expressing your thoughts verbally to the universe.  The first thing we might notice is how biased (towards self-harm) our thoughts might be, which starts to raise our awareness around the energy these thoughts carry. Once aware of such energy, begin a dialogue with yourself to challenge those heavy thoughts, by offering yourself a different perspective, one that a dear friend might offer you.  Once you have practiced this for awhile, you might begin to demonstrate such dialogues in front of your children, admitting that you too have negative thoughts yet you create space for different ways of looking at things and how you might respond to someone you care about that might also have such negative thoughts.
  5. Self-compassion.  One of the most powerful gifts we can offer to and model for the next generation is the practice of self-compassion.  It is important to not only acknowledge our successes, but also our failures, without beating ourselves up.  It is only through the acceptance of our humanness, with both gifts and flaws, that we truly step into our authentic skin and be the shining light in the darkness.  Owning and expressing our imperfections to others is quite powerful, as it begins to empower others to step onto the path of self-acceptance.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience and, as such, we will trip and fall and make mistakes along the path as this is how we learn.  Reminding ourselves – and our children – that in order to discover our true gifts, sometimes we need to stumble through the heap of mistakes.  Consider setting an intention to use a mantra of “I am (you are) human and perfectly imperfect” as a response to mistakes, failures and flaws!

How much yoga would I recommend?

As a yoga teacher, I get a lot of questions about how much yoga I recommend.  The question might be posed as “How many times a week should I take a class?” or “If I practice 3 times a week, how long will it take for me to see results?” or “The length of classes vary from 50 minutes to 90 minutes, what is the best class length?”.  As I tend to answer many questions that may require a more personalized response, I typically say “It depends.”  Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all exercise program designed just for the physical body.  It is a broader practice that has benefits to the brain/mind, body, and energy we experience and can be crafted to address various unique outcomes depending upon our perceived human limitations.  And, if we consider ourselves human, we all have some limitation, whether we are open to acknowledging it or not!

There are yoga practices designed to strengthen the body and others that focus on increasing the flexibility in the body.  Certain yoga practices have the goal of mood management.  Classes can be designed for people challenged with physical conditions, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.  Some classes may not include any movement or very little movement, focusing more on the breath and mind.  Each of us has unique needs and that is why I recommend yoga to everyone, because there is a class and teacher out there that is offering what you need.  It just might take a trial and error approach to finding a good match.

Now, as far as the frequency of the practice, again it will depend upon a person’s intention for integrating yoga into their life.  My intention in my teaching of yoga is to offer a class where first-timers leave the class feeling as though the practice is attainable and not feeling intimidated by the poses, keeping the door open to further exploration of all that yoga has to offer.  So my first recommendation as far as frequency is simply to take a class once to determine if it is a good fit.  From there, you might try another class once and another and another, until you become aware of a shift, whether it is in your body, mind, or energy.  My experience of teaching has told me this can occur with just one class!

From that point, I offer that your view of yoga will expand as you continue on the journey of exploration through the practice.  I might suggest that you consider beginning to integrate some of your favorite practices into your daily routine at home, whether first thing in the morning upon awakening or as the last thing before bed, to improve your sleep.  Over time, what will begin to emerge is a growing sense of acceptance and compassion for yourself and others, supporting the connection between all of your parts that make up your authentic and highest self.

So, my response to the original question might just become a question in return:  “How quickly do you want to experience a shift in consciousness, that aligns you with your truth?”.  There is no prescription for change, as change happens whether we want it or are ready for it or not.  We do have a choice though to work with our circle of influence around change and yoga can be our ‘go to’ support as we ride the waves of change.  We just need to be ready and open to the change we desire and then yoga will simply become a way of life, instead of specific practices we make time for in our lives.

If you might be skeptical that just one yoga class can make such a difference, click on the link below to read the recent research on the effects of one yoga session for service recipients in a behavioral health intensive outpatient program:

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Supporting the Parasympathetic Nervous System

“PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.” ― Author Unknown

Much of our time is spent crossing items off of our “To Do” lists and attempting to juggle multiple demands and commitments.  This fast paced lifestyle over time can wreck havoc on our nervous systems, literally leading the body toward a nervous breakdown.  With summertime upon us and the heat encouraging the body to slow down, it might just be the right time to consider integrating a practice that nurtures our body, mind, and soul!

The human body’s Autonomic Nervous System has two branches:  the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which are designed to compliment each other.  Our SNS is the part of our nervous system that gets activated in times of stress, whether that stress is considered positive or negative.  When the SNS is activated, our heart rate and respiration increase and our blood pressure goes up.  Our PNS is the part of the nervous system that gets activated in times of rest and relaxation, typically after the cause of the stress is removed from our awareness.  When the PNS is activated, our heart rate and respiration decrease and our blood pressure drops.

During stressful times, if we want more peace in our life, it is important to consciously activate our PNS to support the balance between “doing” and “being” and prevent our nervous system from breaking down.  Therefore, below I have provided 5 simple ideas to try to invite the rest and relaxation response in the body to become more present throughout all of the seasons of our lives:
  1. Mindfulness.  This intention might simply start with acknowledging that the human mind, just like a computer, is not designed to multi-task.  Embracing this natural state, we can then begin to invite opportunities to focus on just one thing at a time.  Starting with simple one-minute meditations, sprinkled throughout our day, can create just enough space for a deeper connection with our authentic self as reflected through our experience of gratitude, compassion, peace, and love   Some short meditation ideas include stopping what you are doing and trying one of the following:  taking a few drops of your favorite essential oil (lavender and orange are two that have been shown to support our PNS) in your palm, rub your hands together, hold your hands up near your nose and take 10 long deep breaths; redirect your attention to your body, starting with your feet and moving up to your face, tightening one muscle group at a time (e.g., feet, lower legs, thighs, etc.), taking one full, deep breath for each muscle group before releasing and relaxing; and.or close your eyes and allow you other senses to sharpen, first by identifying all of the sounds the ears might notice, then describing the sensations the skin might be experiencing, and then deepening your breath to notice the scents that might be in the air in that moment.
  2. Breathe Less.  No, I don’t mean hold your breath!  Instead, taking more conscious, extended diaphragmatic breaths, where you lengthen both the inhale and exhale, but allow your exhale to be longer than the inhale, means you may end up only taking 4 breaths per minutes instead of the normal 12 to 20 breaths per minute.  To practice lengthening your exhale, grab a straw and release your exhale through the straw and see if you can get your exhale to maybe be 30 seconds long!  Your inhales support your SNS, while your exhales support your PNS, so encouraging your exhales to be longer than your inhales allows the PNS to express itself.
  3. Stop and smell the roses.  Being out in nature has also been shown to trigger the PNS. Therefore, consider becoming a silent “tree hugger”!  You don’t have to tell anyone and you can do it when no one is looking.  Maybe try it for 40 days and see what happens.  Another option might be the next time you see white clouds in the sky, find a patch of grass to lie down on, look up and begin to identify shapes that the clouds are taking. Maybe you will see a dolphin, unicorn, or heart!
  4. Restorative Yoga.  Some may suggest that all yoga is restorative and I certainly wouldn’t argue with them.  Yet, a pure restorative yoga practice includes poses that are supported with props, such as blankets, pillows, and bolsters, and held for 10 to 20 minutes to allow the muscles to release built up tension.  So consider seeking out a restorative yoga class in your neck of the woods and pencil it in your calendar.  If you would prefer to try it right now, find yourself near a wall (or the back of a closed door), lie down on your right side and scoot your hips close to (but NOT touching) the wall, and then slowly roll onto your back and you lift your legs to the sky and rest the heels on the wall.  For even more comfort and support of your PNS, place a pillow or folded blanket under your hips/sacrum. Hold this pose as long as you feel able, then slowly roll to your side again, and wait at least 3 breaths before pushing yourself back up to a seated pose.  Check in with yourself before standing up and returning to the next item on your “To Do” list.
  5. Yoga Nidra.  This practice is also known as “yogic sleep”.  It is a guided meditation that encourages the mind to drop into deeper states of consciousness.  There are 5 levels of brain waves in the human mind. Gamma waves reflect active thought, Beta waves are present much of our waking time, when we are alert and working, Alpha waves reflect a more relaxed and reflective experience, Theta waves are experienced as a state of drowsiness and meditation, while Delta waves occur while we are sleeping and dreaming. Yoga Nidra creates a space for the mind to experience a more steady Theta wave experience, even floating between Theta and Delta wave states, supporting the activation of the PNS.  It has been said that 1 hour of Yoga Nidra is equal to 4 hours of sleep.  You can find free Yoga Nidra meditations on-line, so find your pillow and blanket and check one out soon!

Honoring Heart Health Month – Yoga-based lifestyle reduces inflammation and risk of cardiovascular disease.

Last month, I wrote about how a part of the brain, specifically the amygdala where emotions are experienced, is impacted by chronic stress, the connection to our heart health, and how talking about our emotions is potentially a part of the physical healing journey towards a reduction in cardiovascular disease.  This month, in recognition of American Heart Month, I want to highlight how embracing a yoga-based lifestyle, including movement, conscious breathing exercises, and mindfulness, can further enhance the reduction in the physical inflammation triggered by the amygdala and the risk of heart disease.

When many of us hear the word yoga, we think of the many photos we see in magazines of people in twisted, inverted positions posed in breath-taking places, such as the top of a mountain or a rock sticking out of the ocean.  Not too realistic for the majority of us, both the poses and the locations! I find myself in awe of such photos, yet being an avid “yogi”, I don’t understand the intention behind such photos.  I don’t find them inviting and, instead, find them intimidating and potentially defeating.  Yoga is not about competition and getting our bodies into “the perfect pose” to show off to the world.  If anything, I think these photos promote competition, which, if we believe we cannot compete due to our body-mind limitations, tends to guide us to not engage at all.  And now that more research-based evidence of the health benefits of a yoga-based lifestyle is coming out, we should be doing whatever we can to reflect that yoga is more of an internal journey towards self-acceptance and compassion, not an external experience of comparison.

A yoga-based lifestyle does not mean going to the gym and getting on a mat to exercise and actually does not require a great deal more than what we normally do every day.  In fact, you can do yoga without owning a mat or ever leaving your home!  What it may mean is that we give ourselves permission to create time for ourselves, reduce our unrealistically long “to do” lists, and prioritize our self-care activities.   Simply taking just 30 minutes a day to include some physical and breathing exercises will make a significant change – and it does not have to be 30 minutes in a row.  You can even do it while sitting and watching your favorite TV show – using the commercial breaks to simply close your eyes, bring your awareness to your breath, and invite your breath to lengthen and deepen as you take 3-5 inhales and exhales through your nose.  Then, if you need a challenge, try focusing on your breath for the whole 2-minute commercial break and notice the body-mind response.  You might notice a physical sensation in the body or you might notice an increase in the clarity of your thoughts.

And, as far a yoga positions, when someone asks me for my #1 suggestion, I offer what is referred to as “legs-up-the-wall”, also known in Sanskrit as Viparita Karani.  I guide clients to try this pose for the first time with only the heels touching the wall at first (see photo accompanying this post), so there is no tension in the back of the legs.  You can do it anywhere, including against the back of a door.  Simply lower yourself to the floor near a wall, using a chair if needed to transition to (and back up from) the floor.  Find yourself first seated on the floor and then lowering yourself all the way down to one side of your body, curling into a fetal position, with your knees up toward your chest.  Now, roll onto your back, extend the legs up into the air and rest the heels on the wall.  Once settled into the pose, notice your breath and try smoothing it out as you inhale and exhale through the nose.  You can hold this pose as long as it feels comfortable in the body.  When ready to release from the pose, reverse the steps you took to get into it.  Bend your knees, bring the soles of the feet to the wall and slide them down towards your hips.  Roll to one side coming back into a fetal position.  Use your top hand to press down into the floor to raise yourself up into a seated position, moving gently and slowly.  Take a moment to notice any physical sensations or thoughts in the mind and, when it suits you, transition back to standing, using the chair if needed.

Practicing such a gentle inversion turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, the system of “rest and digest” bringing balance to the sympathetic system that is responsible for activating the “flight and fight” responses instinctual in the human survival optimization system. It is such balancing experiences that support the body’s natural ability to process input, not only the foods we eat, but the sights, sounds, and smells that enter our body through our five senses.  When we support our body in this way, we create a healthier environment for the body to maintain its own natural balance, as reflected in measurements of weight, blood pressure, glucose levels, etc., thus reducing the inflammatory response in the body, along with the level of cortisol and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Making a conscious choice to slow down, embracing the mantra of “less is more”, might be a good place to start when considering a yoga-based lifestyle as a prevention and management intervention for heart disease.  And, if you are inspired to “get on the mat” in a yoga class, remember that there is NO perfect pose, only the perfect variation of a pose that moves you both inside and out!

If you are interested in reading more about the research around how a yoga-based lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease, click on the link below: