Jim Clancy, a licensed family therapist in Orange County, California, for over 35 years, has seen rising anxiety levels among mothers of young children. And it’s never been worse than during recent months, when many kids are unable to return to school due to COVID-19.
“I practically have to beg mothers to take time for themselves,” Clancy said.
“Most women come to me because they feel out of balance.”
Quick to align the tires so they can chauffeur safely, they’ve forgotten about the driver’s own equilibrium. During a difficult year, when summer travel has been restricted and holiday travel may be difficult, we can still take some mini-vacations for the soul.
Want to relax? Whip up just a dash of adrenaline (the fight-or-flight hormone) with a dose of endorphins (the natural opiates we get from pleasurable activities) and a sprinkle of the neurotransmitter serotonin (low levels of which are associated with depression) for the perfect biochemical balance. To achieve this, exercise. Exercise can release adrenaline, which burns off, but the endorphins and serotonin it spurs continue to be released into your system.
When in Aroma
A hot bath is the perfect mini-vacay anytime but especially during the holiday months when expectations are high. Just fill the tub, add an essence (magnolia is relaxing), and revel in the sense of scent. Scent, the most underrated of the five senses, has the ability to affect our mood, memory, appetite, and libido, among other things.
Researchers are finding that certain fragrances can both calm us down and perk us up. Lavender, long known for its relaxing effect, also helps people complete tasks faster and more accurately while remaining calm. If the warm bath is sedating enough, try a touch of peppermint. Both subjective reports and brainwave readings of a recent study indicate that the scent of peppermint reduces fatigue.
Keep in mind that certain smells also have the power to elicit memories. Make sure the scent has positive associations, or better yet, imprint a new fragrance so that in the future it will evoke memories of, say, a family gathering that everyone enjoyed—even if it was different this year.
“Holiday gatherings are great bonding opportunities,” Clancy said. “But if mom’s burned out, she can’t be totally present.” Use your favorite essence, and you’ll emerge from that tub feeling scentsational!
No Place Like ‘Ohm’
Although aware of the physiological benefits of meditation, many people complain that it’s too hard to sit there and “just do nothing.” Meditation is anything but nothing. It lowers levels of stress hormones lactate and cortisol (elevated levels of the latter can cause everything from widening girths to Cushing syndrome); heart, breathing, and metabolic rates; and elevated blood pressure.
But like all skills, quieting the mind takes practice.
For this meditation, begin by sitting comfortably, eyes closed. Take deep breaths and count to 10 as you exhale. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back by focusing on your breath and start from one. Try five minutes a day, then slowly work your way up to longer periods.
Need further motivation? A study using electroencephalograms showed that the brains of Buddhist monks had greater activity in areas associated with positive emotions, such as happiness, and the highest levels of gamma wave activity (involved in memory and learning) ever recorded.
For those who find meditation difficult, it may be because recent studies show what we’ve all suspected: men’s and women’s brains are different. The corpus callosum—the bridge of nerve tissue connecting the two hemispheres—is thicker in female fetuses. Brain imaging of adults indicates that while only the left hemisphere of male brains shows activity during language-oriented tasks, such as reading, both sides of women’s brains are working.
“Women think tangentially; they are multi-taskers,” said Jolanta Lukawski, medical director for Women’s Wellness Center at Hoag Hospital.
“Emptying the mind goes against the grain of how women’s minds work. They relax more easily when using their hands; knitting, painting, kneading dough.”
This may explain the popularity of finger labyrinths. They work much the same way as walking meditation labyrinths except that you let your finger do the walking. You trace the meandering but purposeful path of a circular design either drawn on paper or etched into wood to and from the labyrinth’s center. It’s thought to be a spiritual journey to one’s core and back again into the world. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has lots of turns but no dead-ends—a nice metaphor for life during stressful times.
Think of your favorite singer or one whose music you find soothing. “Music is ether,” Tori Amos once said in a television interview. Long famous for her songwriting, Tori creates ballads (like “Mother Revolution,” one she wrote years ago) that can soothe the souls of both young and old. So why not put on Tori, or another singer you enjoy, and turn your living room into a spiritual ballroom.
There’s been much research on sound therapy since it was discovered that listening to Mozart improved test scores. “Certain frequencies can stimulate alpha waves that are relaxing,” Lukawski said. Whether you like your tunes sweet and low or loud and fast, the physical exertion in tandem with the right vibrations equal a happier, more refreshed you.
Crashing bodies of water, such as ocean waves and waterfalls, create large numbers of negatively charged ions, which are thought to be associated with good health. Research by the U.S. Air Force in the 1940s and ’50s showed that pilots passed out at high altitudes where the air was found to have high concentrations of positively charged ions. When negative-ion generators were placed in the planes, pilots stayed awake. Consider that at Niagara Falls, there are 100,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter as opposed to 100 positive ions per cubic centimeter on any given freeway during rush hour. Breaking waves also provide sound therapy. “Even if you can’t see the ocean, just the rhythmic sound instills peace,” Lukawski said.
During one of the most stressful years in recent memory, when opportunities to get away from it all are most needed yet hardest to come by, taking these mini vacays for the soul might just be all the travel you need.
Joni Ravenna Sussman is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications over the years. She is also a playwright and TV writer.