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First, Love Yourself

"There are moments

when I feel more clearly than ever

that I am in the company

of my own person.

This comforts and reassures me,

this heartens me,

just as my tridimensional body

is heartened by my own authentic shadow." from "Myself and My Person", by Anna Swir, from Talking to my Body, Copper Canyon Press.

It is not enough to pat ourselves occasionally and avoid ourselves the rest of the time. We forget, day after day, that ourselves, our bodies are the only things we get to keep for our whole lives. We focus on exercise and nutrients, but how often do we stop and check in with our own minds?

When was the last time you took a deep breath? Take one right now. Stop and relax your stomach and chest muscles. Breathe in deeply, filling your belly first and then your chest. Exhale slowly, letting your chest collapse and then your belly. The breath is one of the most vital sources of life, energy and detoxification that we have, and yet we barely pay attention to it. How is your breathing today?

It's common for us to feel overwhelmed this time of year. Winter is waning, but not lessening its grip. Good nutrition fortifies us to get through the tough times, but making a practice of calm is beneficial to us in every aspect of our lives. We hustle hard, and chances are, we aren't taking enough time to pause.

What exactly is calm? Calm is, quite simply, an undisturbed mind--a goal that to some might seem laughable, but which is actually more achievable than you think. Picture your mind as a clear, still pool of water. Every thought is like a pebble dropped in, sending out ripples. Your goal is to stop dropping the pebbles. But how?

Stop Distracting Yourself

We spend a lot of time "tuning out". We think that it's helping, but the truth is, it's just pushing the ripples further. There's a reason we feel uncomfortable when we sit in a room without stimulation: our brains have been taught to grasp, grasp, grasp and when there's nothing to grasp, it induces a kind of anxiety. If you really want to bring calm into your life, you have to disconnect.

Studies have shown that social media has a twofold effect. First, it makes us compare ourselves to others in a way we never had to before. You might not ever meet that nineteen-year-old influencer suntanning in Cabo, but you sure as heck can spend the day wishing you had her life! It wasn't as big of a deal before to keep up with the Joneses, but now, the Joneses have gone global and multiplied exponentially. Even if you're doing something as innocuous as looking for hair inspiration, it's easy to feel wretched after looking at thousands of edited photos.

Second, it makes us crave feedback. Getting likes and comments activates the brain's reward center and makes us want more. We become physiologically addicted to the very unreal feedback we are receiving--and part of the issues it that it's entirely meaningless. For as many people as are reading your posts and leaving a well-thought-out comment about your content, a hundred more are clicking the heart while breezing past the photo. Some might like the photo itself without caring about the context. Some might be wanting to support you without doing any real work. Others just click all day because they like to click. The point is, it's a damaging and unreal cycle that isn't doing us any good for our mental health.

How to Increase Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moments you are experiencing. It's not always as easy as it sounds. If you find mindfulness consistently difficult, try some of these ideas:

  • Practice deep breathing whenever possible. If you forget to do this (which is very, very easy to do), practice deep breathing on the toilet. It sounds strange, but going to the bathroom is something everyone does consistently, and during that time we are mostly alone and not focusing on anything else. Put your phone away, and take some deep breaths (through your mouth, if need be.)

  • Be aware of your body. If you find yourself feeling disconnected, focus on your toes, then the soles of your feet, then your ankles, then calves, up your body, taking note of what all your muscles are doing. Even if you do nothing else, this reconnects you with your physical presence and brings you back to the moment.

  • If you have trouble with it, try tapping. Tap your fingers somewhere on your body--your leg, your arm, your other hand--and focus on the connection of your body with your body. Fun fact: tapping on your sternum releases immunity-boosting cells, so try that particularly when you're not feeling well.

  • If you can't avoid your phone, use apps. Some apps, like Calm, Headspace and 10% Happier, are designed for everyday mindfulness and meditation. Others, like Calm Harm and Clear Fear, are targeted to specific issues (self-harm and anxiety in this example, respectively). If you find yourself reaching for your phone to distract yourself, open one of the calming apps first.

  • Stretch. Just a few minutes of stretching can help the body detoxify and increase blood flow. If you can't do yoga at home, try YouTube for hundreds of amazing videos. Slow, gentle movements help us reconnect with the various parts of our body we would usually ignore.

  • Set time aside for yourself. If your water heater exploded, you'd attend to the task right away, without considering what else you were setting aside by taking care of it. Treat your mental health like that. Don't be afraid to let everyone know you're going to be a half hour later--and then use that time to sit quietly and breathe.

  • Listen. Listen to the sounds around you, intricately. Listen to the people who are talking to you with a concerted effort. Go to new spaces, less cluttered spaces, more natural spaces, and listen.

  • Find what makes you focus and practice that. I should point out that focus does not include zoning out. If you are doing something automatically, like having a conversation while texting or driving while thinking about something else, you're not focusing. Practicing focus improves the way we interpret information. It also signals to the brain to stop releasing anxiety hormones and to start releasing calming ones--another reason deep breathing is excellent for our health.

  • If you can't make room for any of this in your life, pay someone else to do it for you. Go to a class like yoga, tai chi, qi gong; get a massage or facial or salt soak. Spend an hour with an aromatherapist or hypnotist or reiki master. Really listen to what these people have to offer you--you might find that you have an interest in it that goes beyond receiving the benefits.

As the days grow longer and the sun gets stronger, we need to make sure we are building a solid foundation both mentally and physically that we can add to as we blossom into spring. Use this month to reconnect with the forgotten parts of your psyche that might be sorely in need of some attention. By ensuring your own physical and mental health, you benefit those around you: a good reminder to those of us who try, constantly, to please others, without ever pleasing ourselves.

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