Your Secret Weapon Against Stress

How To Master Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Your Secret Weapon Against Stress

What’s one of the first things that happens when you encounter a stressful situation? You tense up. Your shoulders rise, your stomach tightens, your jaw clenches.

It’s part of the evolutionary fight-or-flight response in the face of danger. Your body is literally getting ready to do battle. With a saber-toothed tiger. Except that, in reality, there aren’t any of those around.

Just your two year old.

Having a temper tantrum in the grocery store.

(Which, let’s be honest, does bear some resemblance to a saber-toothed tiger.)

The thing is, this is a normal short-term response. But if the tension doesn’t release once the stressful event is over, you start to build chronic muscle tension. Which is exhausting and, after a while, hurts too. (Tension headaches, anyone? Chronic back ache?) Plus, it also contributes to a vicious cycle: your brain registers all that tension and interprets it as a reason to feel all stressed and anxious. Thus more tension.

So you need to cultivate the skill of relaxing all those tense muscles. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is an old school—but very effective—way of coping with stress. It takes a little practice at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to slip into relax mode in a matter of seconds. And once your muscles are relaxed and warm...well, you’ll actually find that it’s quite difficult to feel stressed and anxious when you’re in that state.

Here are the instructions:

1. Choose a place where you won’t be interrupted (no small challenge, I know); stretch out on the floor, on your back, and close your eyes.

2. Breathe in, and tense your hands. Clench them into fists for 4-10 seconds.

3. Breathe out, and completely relax your hands. Allow your hands to feel warm and heavy. Notice the difference between how your muscles felt when they were tense and now that they’re relaxed.

4. Repeat the tense-relax cycle for each muscle group in order:

  • Wrists & forearms
  • Biceps/upper arms
  • Shoulders
  • Forehead
  • Around eyes
  • Cheeks/jaw
  • Around mouth
  • Back of Neck
  • Front of Neck
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Stomach
  • Hips/buttocks
  • Thighs
  • Lower legs

This muscle group order is not set in stone; many people prefer to do their progression starting in the lower limbs and moving up—feel free to experiment and go with what feels best for you.

Pro tip: get yourself an audio recording of the instructions—rather than trying to memorize them—when you’re first starting out. I suggest checking out iTunes—they have tons of podcasts with relaxation exercises.

So why is this a secret weapon? Well, it's free, it's safe, it's easy, and especially—once you've learned this skill, and practiced it a bit, you'll find you can do an abbreviated form anywhere, anytime. Just like breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation is your quick gateway to stress relief.



Health Dilemma: Sleep vs. Exercise?

Because sometimes, you just have to make a choice...

Health Dilemma: Sleep vs. Exercise?

Most moms are not getting quite enough sleep. Most moms also don’t get enough exercise. But which is more important? And if you only have time for one, in a given 24-hour period, which one should you choose?

Well, it’s a tricky little conundrum. But I’ve got some answers for you.

Of course, it would be lovely if we all had enough time to do everything we wanted to do: time for work, family, social life, me plenty of time to rest, exercise, and make fabulous, organic, home-cooked meals that even our kids love...

Possibly this is a bit of a fantasy.

The plain truth for most of us: there is not enough time in the day. People talk a lot about balance. And it’s a nice ideal. But sometimes, you just can’t have balance. Sometimes you have to make a choice.

So, if you have to choose between exercise and sleep, you choose this:


Most experts agree that you should not be sacrificing sleep to get more exercise. Why?

Sleep is a foundation of health. You can suffer a lot of harm if you’re not getting enough sleep. Even one night of insufficient sleep can do damage—by increasing blood pressure, triggering poor eating choices, messing with your blood sugar, impairing your concentration and slowing your reflexes (thus creating danger with activities like driving). Exercise is also critical, of course, but a missed workout, here and there, is not going to have quite the same adverse effect. Setting that alarm to get up in the wee hours of the morning for a run, when you’re really not getting enough sleep, is not a good idea.

Not everyone will agree with this. And it’s maybe not as black-and-white as I’m portraying.

I think there’s room for some individual tailoring. Fact is, while you do need several hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, you don’t have to get your exercise in 60 minute chunks. For many of us, that’s just too difficult to fit in to a busy day’s schedule anyway. A good compromise on the sleep versus exercise dilemma: get the sleep you need, then squeeze your exercise into 10-minute bursts. Don’t worry about getting up two hours early to hit the gym.

(Now, if the dilemma is over housework versus's my answer to that.)

So tell me: what do you find helps you feel better? Sleep or exercise? And if you find time for both, on a regular basis—spill it! We’d all love to hear your secrets.


The Health Benefits of Generosity and Kindness

The Good In Doing Good

The Health Benefits of Generosity and Kindness

Random acts of kindness feel good. They feel good when you’re on the receiving side of the equation…and they feel even better when you’re on the giving side. But did you know there are health benefits, too?

Research is showing that people who help others actually become happier, healthier, and live longer than people who don’t.

Good for the mind

The mental health benefits of kindness are the most intuitive, of course. But now there's research to back this up. Doing good for others has been shown to reduce depression, decrease anxiety, and enhance well-being. It’s a documented stress-buster and happiness booster.

And it’s not just adults who benefit. A recent Australian study showed that toddlers under the age of two exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others—even more so than when receiving the treats themselves.

Good for the body

Altruism appears to improve physical health and longevity, too. Several studies have demonstrated this. A study at the University of Michigan found that people who helped others—friends, relatives, and neighbours—had a reduced risk of dying, compared to people who didn't engage in altruistic acts. Other studies have confirmed this—and have gone further to show that the more you help others the more you reap the benefits yourself. People who volunteer have lower mortality rates, and people who volunteer for two or more organizations have a mortality rate reduced by 44% over non-volunteers. This is a huge number—a bigger effect than exercising four times weekly, in fact, and only slightly smaller than the effect caused not smoking.   

One of the physiologic effects that may explain the health benefits of helping other people is the release of oxytocin—the touch hormone, the bonding hormone. Oxytocin has received a lot of interest lately and is proving to have many significant health benefits, like decreased inflammation, improved wound healing, and decreased blood pressure.

Good for the soul

If you've ever volunteered or helped a charity, I think you know what I’m talking about when I use the term “helper’s high.” And now there’s research to show this is a real thing.

And the research is nice. But, truth be told, this is something people have long known.

Charles Dickens knew about it in 1843 when he created the character Ebenezer Scrooge: the ultimate curmudgeon who reformed his ways. With each generous act, Scrooge became more vibrant and sprightly, growing younger and happier before our eyes.

But we can go even further back to see the wisdom of altruism:

   If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
   If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
   If you want happiness for a month, get married.
   If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
   If you want happiness for a someone else.

                     -Chinese Proverb

Small Gestures To Pay It Forward

Now, this is all very nice, but as a mom, doesn't it feel like you’re already doing enough for other people, namely your kids? How can you possibly add “good deeds” to your list of things to do? Well, fact is, all this research into the health benefits of altruism was started in the 1950s when researchers happened to be studying...guess who? Yep, a bunch of moms

Researchers at Cornell University School of Medicine were studying a group of married women with children, over a period of 30 years, and were surprised to find that the number of children, education, class, and work status didn’t influence how long the women lived. What did? Whether the women volunteered or not. Moms who helped others tended to live longer than moms who didn’t.

Still, it’s not easy to find the time. So why not do your good deeds in bite-sized format? A helping hand here and there can go a long way. Small gestures only take a moment but they can make a big difference.  

Here are some ideas of little things you can do:

Hold the door open for someone

Pay the toll for the car behind you 

Pass on a book you enjoyed

Offer to look after a friend’s kids

Donate your old things to charity

Make someone new feel welcome

Give someone a hug