Monthly Archives: April 2017

Yoga for Beginners

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Yoga may help your aching back — but it requires a personalized approach.

“Joy…and pain…are like sunshine…and rain.” Those lyrics from an 80s song are an apt description of the ups and downs of life. But for the millions of people who experience back pain, the pain part takes center stage at times, sidelining them from some of life’s joy and sunshine. For low back pain that’s chronic (lasting three months or more) and nonspecific (not due to an injury, illness, or other known cause), yoga can help, according to a recent review of studies. Immobility and stress are two factors that can exacerbate back pain, and yoga can address both those issues, explains Judi Bar, Cleveland Clinic’s yoga program manager. But that doesn’t mean you should immediately sign up for Hot Power Yoga. When you’re dealing with chronic pain, it’s essential to take it slowly and listen carefully to your body, says Bar. “Not all yoga is created equal, and a motion that’s beneficial for one person may not be beneficial for another.”

When starting out, choose stretches that mimic everyday movements and support the natural movement of your spine. Throughout the following gentle chair sequence, stay mindful of your body’s signals and keep your breathing steady.

  • Sit tall in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the ground.
  • With your back straight and your hands on your thighs for support, lean slightly forward (toward the front of the chair) and then backward (toward the back of the chair), inhaling and exhaling as you move. Let your body tell you how far to go. Return to center, sitting straight up.
  • Gently lean to one side and then the other side, inhaling and exhaling as you move. Again, let your body tell you how far to go. Return to center, sitting straight up.
  • Keeping your buttocks on the chair, gently twist your body toward the right as far as you feel comfortable without forcing. Return to center. Repeat on the left, returning to center.
  • Sitting at the front of your chair, position your legs hip-width apart. With a long, flat back, reach forward and down toward the floor, keeping your neck aligned with your back (don’t let it hang down). Take a few breaths, then slowly return to your starting position.
  • Reach both hands toward the back of the chair to open your chest, inhaling as you gently stretch back and open, and exhaling as your return to the starting position.

“Notice how you feel immediately after this sequence, and the next day. Let that guide you on your next steps,” advises Bar. If you take a class, look for a class designed for those with low back pain, or a gentle class with an experienced teacher who can offer you modifications.

8 Ways to Turn a Bad Day Around

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Lost your keys? Your temper? An argument with a fellow commuter? A maddening morning can morph into a decent day—or even a good one. The key is to reduce arousal levels, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life the Brain. “When people are running late and feel time-pressured, or their goals are blocked—say, traffic—or they have an interpersonal conflict like an argument with a partner or child, their arousal levels soar. Cortisol is released to prepare the body for fight or flight,” says Dr. Barrett. “Even after your brain learns that the fight-or-flight mechanism is not necessary, your body takes a while to calm down, so you continue to feel wound up. That’s what can actually make it more likely for your bad day to continue.” Try these eight tips to help you wind down and bring your mood back up.

Pause the multitasking
Instead, take a deep breath and do just one single task for a few moments. Being effective at something helps you feel positive, and concentrating on just one thing “will help your mind stop racing or will help dislodge you from ruminating—for example, having an argument with someone in your head or replaying a bad event over and over again like a movie stuck on a replay loop,” says Dr. Barrett.

Get moving
Stretching exercises can generate feel-good chemicals and work out the tension that stress and a bad mood create, says Karen Cassidy, Ph.D., managing director of The Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago. Feeling better physically can counter some of the effects of feeling low mentally and emotionally.

Look around
Be mindful of the small details in nature that you find compelling and inspiring: say, a bit of greenery poking through a crack in the sidewalk or a vase of colorful flowers. “Immersing yourself in beauty for a moment is calming,” says Dr. Barrett.

Connect with a loved one
The best thing for a human nervous system can be another person’s nervous system, says Dr. Barrett, so share a smile or give (or get) a hug. “Try to avoid social media if you can,” she adds. “The worst thing for your nervous system can be another person, particularly when you are not sure if that person is evaluating you negatively or not.”

Do something nice for someone
Treat a friend or co-worker to lunch. Being kind and generous to others actually makes you feel better, says Dr. Barrett.

Concentrate on gratitude
Write down at least three things that you are grateful for and find at least three positive things that are happening now. “For example, if you just got into a fender bender with your car, you can remind yourself that you are grateful that no one was hurt, that you have auto insurance, and that the tow truck crew offered to drop you off at your office,” says Dr. Cassidy.

Revisit some challenges you’ve tackled successfully
Write down four or five problems you have solved in the past. “This helps you recall that you are capable of overcoming difficulties, and it jump starts your problem-solving mindset,” says Dr. Cassidy. “It helps you avoid the ‘there is nothing I can do’ mindset.”

Remember that all events in life are temporary
Keep in mind the expression “This too, shall pass,” says Dr. Cassidy. “That makes it easier to believe that you can endure and persist. Even crises are temporary.”

Wellness Challenge: Gratitude

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Your wellness challenge for this week is to identify someone you are thankful for and let them know. Try to do this four days out of the week (or more)! Besides making that person feel good, here are some ways that expressing gratitude will make you feel good, too.

“There is a magnetic appeal to gratitude,” says Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a pioneer of gratitude research. “It speaks to a need that’s deeply entrenched.” It’s as if we need to give thanks and be thanked, just as it’s important to feel respected and connected socially. From an evolutionary perspective, feelings of gratitude probably helped bind communities together. When people appreciate the goodness that they’ve received, they feel compelled to give back. This interdependence allows not only an individual to survive and prosper but also society as a whole. It’s easy, in these modern times, to forget this, however. We’re too busy or distracted, or we’ve unwittingly become a tad too self-entitled. We disconnect from others and suffer the consequences, such as loneliness, anger, or even a less robust immune system.

“Gratitude serves as a corrective,” says Emmons. But by gratitude, he doesn’t mean just uttering a “Hey, thanks” or shooting off a perfunctory e-mail. He means establishing a gratitude ritual, whether it’s a morning meditation of what you’re thankful for, a bedtime counting of blessings, or a gratitude journal. This concerted, consistent effort to notice and appreciate the good things flowing to us changes us for the better on many levels, say gratitude experts. Here’s how.

1. You’ll feel happier.
In a seminal study by Emmons, subjects who wrote down one thing that they were grateful for every day reported being 25% happier for a full six months after following this practice for just three weeks. In a University of Pennsylvania study, subjects wrote letters of gratitude to people who had done them a major service but had never been fully thanked. After the subjects personally presented these letters, they reported substantially decreased symptoms of depression for as long as a full month.

2. You’ll boost your energy levels.
In Emmons’s gratitude-journal studies, those who regularly wrote down things that they were thankful for consistently reported an ever increasing sense of vitality. Control subjects who simply kept a general diary saw little increase, if any. The reason is unclear, but improvements in physical health (see below), also associated with giving thanks, may have something to do with it. The better your body functions, the more energetic you feel.

3. You’ll get healthier.
A gratitude practice has also been associated with improved kidney function, reduced blood-pressure and stress-hormone levels, and a stronger heart. Experts believe that the link comes from the tendency of grateful people to appreciate their health more than others do, which leads them to take better care of themselves. They avoid deleterious behaviors, like smoking and drinking excessive alcohol. They exercise, on average, 33% more and sleep an extra half hour a night.

4. You’ll be more resilient.
When we notice kindness and other gifts we’ve benefited from, our brains become wired to seek out the positives in any situation, even dire ones. As a result, we’re better at bouncing back from loss and trauma. “A grateful stance toward life is relatively immune to both fortune and misfortune,” says Emmons. We see the blessings, not just the curses.

5. You’ll improve your relationship.
A 2012 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study of more than 300 coupled people found that those who felt more appreciated by their partners were more likely to appreciate their partners in return and to stay in the relationship longer, compared with couples who didn’t feel appreciated by each other. Christine Carter, a sociologist at the Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that gratitude can rewire our brains to appreciate the things in our relationships that are going well. It can calm down the nervous system and counter the fight-or-flight stress response, she says. You can’t be grateful and resentful at the same time.

6. You’ll be a nicer person.
People can’t help but pay gratitude forward. When appreciation is expressed, it triggers a biological response in the recipient’s brain, including a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine, says Emmons. So when you express gratitude toward a spouse, a colleague, or a friend, he or she feels grateful in return, and the back-and-forth continues. What’s more, thanking your benefactors makes them feel good about the kind acts that they’ve done, so they want to continue doing them, not only for you but also for others.

Inspired? Research has shown that one of the best ways to home in on the people and the experiences we appreciate is through writing in a gratitude journal. Recording our thoughts, by hand or electronically, helps us focus them, explains Emmons, who says that he, too, does this exercise to remind himself “how good gratitude is. It gives us time to understand better the meaning and importance of people and events in our lives.” Here are strategies for maximizing the benefits:

1. Go for depth rather than breadth. This will help you truly savor what you appreciate, and keep your journal from becoming simply a list of nice thoughts. (Journals like that tend to get abandoned.)

2. Write consistently. But it’s OK if you can’t do it every day. Once or twice a week is enough to boost happiness.

3. Write freely. Don’t sweat the grammar and the spelling. No one else will see this journal unless you want someone to.

4. Don’t think of this as just one more self-improvement project. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reflect on other people and the above-and-beyond things that they’ve done for you, says Emmons. In other words, “it’s not all about us,” he says. “This may be the most important lesson about trying to become more grateful.”