by Leslee Kagan
With the holiday season in full swing, our lives have become even more hectic. To-do lists are longer while our attention span is shorter, and there never seems to be enough time in one day to get everything done. All in all, we are busy trying to make the holiday season the best it can be for our families, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
During this time, however, when we’re so focused on others, it’s more important than ever to be attentive to our own needs. Our health depends on it!
Individuals who practice self care are healthier and happier year-round; it is vital to well-being and to fighting disease. Women in particular tend to become so focused on the needs of others that we don’t have time for ourselves, which just aggravates the stress cycle.
So what exactly is self care? Simply put, it ultimately means making choices that are right for you and for your body; it’s managing stress, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and getting adequate sleep and exercise. In addition, it’s important to have a positive attitude and a sense of humor, as well as a strong social network. Although this all seems self-explanatory, too often self care is neglected. Many women are under tremendous stress and put their own health last. You’ve heard it before – if you cannot care for yourself, then you cannot properly care for others.
At the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI), we conceptualize health as a three-legged stool. The first two legs represent pharmaceuticals and surgery, which we may require when we already have a health problem. The third leg – self care – is critical to our well-being. It’s proactive, preventive, and – most importantly – it’s something we can do for ourselves to optimize our health. Through our clinical programs at BHI, we teach people how to become more fully aware of their own ability to manage stress and harness their innate healing power through self care and the relaxation response.
In the late 1960’s, Dr. Herbert Benson, the Director Emeritus and founder of BHI, coined the term the “relaxation response.” The relaxation response is a state – and it is the physiologic opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is elicited, breathing, metabolism and heart rate slow down, blood pressure drops, and muscles relax.
The relaxation response is the foundation of stress management at BHI. Through research, we have found that it can be elicited by a variety of techniques, such as meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, focusing on a word or phrase, repetitive prayer, chi gong, tai chi, and yoga.
The necessary two basic steps to eliciting the relaxation response are the repetition of a sound, word, phrase or prayer, or movement, and the passive setting aside of intruding thoughts and returning to the repetition. A body of research (some of it conducted at BHI) shows that eliciting the relaxation response is measurably effective in countering the harmful effects of stress.
Here’s an example of a simple way to elicit the relaxation response and can help you reduce holiday stress. Try this exercise in a quiet and familiar place.
Eliciting the Relaxation Response:
The following is the technique most commonly taught at the Benson-Henry Institute:
- Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as “one,” “peace,” “calm.”
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.
- Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
- Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
- Continue for ten to twenty minutes.
- Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
- Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do this are before breakfast and before dinner.
Try this simple relaxation response exercise, in addition to making other choices for self care strategies, such as connecting with friends, going for a brisk morning walk, or simply focusing on the moment while cooking or wrapping presents.
For more relaxation exercises, visit www.massgeneral.org/bhi/basics. The Benson-Henry Institute also has a stress reduction program for women coming up (details below).
Happy holidays, and best wishes for a calmer and happier New Year!
Taking Care of Ourselves: A Program for Women
This four-week wellness program from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital teaches women self care skills. The program is designed to help participants cope with the stress of daily life, leaving them with a renewed sense of control and well-being.
During the one-hour lunchtime sessions, participants will learn:
- The physiology of stress and how it affects the body
- Self-care strategies to reduce stress and increase resilience
- Relaxation techniques such as meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness and imagery
- Easy ways to reduce or stop stress-inducing thoughts
Taking Care of Ourselves is led by Leslee Kagan, MS, FNP, Director of Women’s Health at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.
The program begins Tuesday, January 8th and will take place four consecutive weeks from 12:00 noon to 1:00 pm at the Yawkey building (suite 4940) at MGH. Program cost is $95.
To learn more or to register for Taking Care of Ourselves, please call Maureen Gilbert at 617-643-6067 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for registering is December 21, 2012.
About Mind Body Medicine
Mind body medicine is an evidence-based field that draws from many scientific disciplines, including modern medicine, psychology, neuroscience, genomics, nutrition, and exercise physiology. The goal is to enhance the body’s natural healing capacities. Mind body medicine does not devalue conventional medicine, pharmacology or surgery, but rather, it adopts the perspective that health is optimized when mind body approaches are used in combination with conventional medicine.
To learn more about the Benson-Henry Institute and our clinical programs, please visit us online at www.massgeneral.org/bhi and follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BensonHenryInstitute
Leslee Kagan, MS, FNP is the Director of Women’s Health Programs at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital