Category Archives: Stress Relief

January Reflection

As the first month of the year winds down, it allows for a nice moment of reflection. Days, weeks, even months, seem to pass by in a blink. While we recommend keeping a gratitude journal – and making it a daily practice – we know that getting started can be tough, especially if you have a lot of other goals and resolutions that you wish to achieve.

This week’s reflection is just as relevant for those who have kept a gratitude journal and those who haven’t. All it requires is that you spend a few moments looking back over the past month, and that you pinpoint a few standout memories from the first 31 days of 2015.

Find yourself a quiet place, and a comfortable place to sit. Fold yourself into whatever position suits your needs, just as long as your back is straight and you can take some deep diaphragmatic breaths. Allow yourself to settle in for a minute or two, focusing only on your breathing. Enjoy the feeling of your belly expanding as you take air in, and, as you exhale, enjoy the peaceful feeling of the completion of that breath, pausing before you inhale again. Once you have slowed your breathing a bit, and feel focused, turn your attention to the past month.

Even if you had a tough month, overall, there have surely been some moments of joy, of celebration, of connection, that can elicit feelings of gratitude and warmth when you look back at them. Perhaps you had a great family dinner just before everyone headed back to work and school after the holiday break. Maybe you joined a running club as part of a get-fit resolution, and you’ve had the opportunity to enjoy conversations with your new friends during long runs. Maybe just this morning you found yourself smiling back at your puppy, amazed at his ability to greet every day with unbridled joy and thrilled that he shares that joy with you.

In your mind, walk back through the last 31 days. If you remember a less-than-terrific moment, breathe in as you remind yourself that it was just a moment within a full, well-rounded month, and as you exhale, let go of your thoughts about it, turning to another, more positive moment.

Allow yourself to smile as you recall moments of loveliness. Smile as you remember laughing at lunch with your father, smile as you think about getting a hug from your friend, smile when you remember how proud you were when you finally made a perfect poached egg. Big or small, these moments made up the happy parts of your month. Smile as you think of them, and continue to breathe deeply.

After a few minutes, or when you feel ready, take a final few deep breaths, and open your eyes. Spend a few minutes jotting down the strongest, most positive memories, the ones that made you smile most. We recommend keeping track of these memories in a hand-written notebook (ideally one specifically for writing down highlights of 2015, and gratitudes from the year; you’ll love looking back on it in 2016). But even keeping a running Word document on your laptop will make for a nice repository of memories.

Try this meditation on the last day of each month. Give yourself permission to make mistakes or work with your calendar; if you end up running through your memories a day early or a day late, that’s fine!

Just be sure to set aside a few minutes, and you will have many happy answers to the age-old question, “Where does the time go?”

Rainbow Connection

The other day, my friend, Elaina, and I were coloring at the kitchen table with her two little girls. We had a stack of coloring books, but were also tearing through a pile of computer paper to draw designs. “Pretty colors,” her four-year-old said, as she looked at my drawing. I noticed that the colors that I gravitate to have been the same for many years, and I lamented that, while I can custom-order bags full of whatever color M&Ms I desire, I can’t custom order a box of new crayons with more than four colors*. (As you likely guessed, based on my new-school-supply-fueled love of fall, I adore a brand new box of Crayons.)

“What colors would you want?” asked Elaina. “These ones,” I said. “Black, silver, turquoise, purple, magenta, some kind of bright green, that robin’s egg color. Definitely a lot of black and silver crayons, not just one each. How about you?” “All pink,” she said. “Every color of pink that they have.”

Although it may be some time before we can realize our pipe dream of an entire 96-count box of couture crayons (Are you there, Crayola, it’s me, Jessica!?), we can reap the benefits of coloring more often – and we needn’t wait until a rainy day forces the munchkins indoors for a few hours. Coloring is an amazing way to relax and check in with our creative “side” (which, as we know, is always around, but often neglected).

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I spent last year counseling patients in a hospital. Upon my arrival onsite, I was pleased to find that the majority of the patients were coloring every day. They did this for stress relief, for a distraction, sometimes, just for fun. These patients, who spent almost the entire day in group or individual counseling, who were struggling, fighting to find comfort in their lives and in themselves, found solace in coloring in the printed copies of mandalas that were neatly organized in folders at the nursing station. Some colored during sessions that upset them, using the tactile and visual sensations almost as a type of grounding. Others used coloring to block out the noise in the waiting area, while some used coloring in order to draw gifts for their peers. The coloring calmed them, helped them to relax, and it also provided a sense of satisfaction when they completed a beautiful picture.

Coloring is for everyone. Those feelings – of calm, of relaxation, of satisfaction – can be had by all of us. Recently, an article in Huffington Post Spain was translated to English for the US site, and began making the Facebook post rounds. I was hardly surprised to read the author’s assertion that coloring “generates wellness, quietness, and… stimulates brain areas related to motor skills, the senses, and creativity.” And according to an Artnet article, the fact that coloring may remind us of our childhood may be comforting as well.

Recently, during dinner with my fiancé, I mused aloud that restaurants should provide crayons and paper for grownups, not just for patrons under 10. While I’ve never understood how people can sit through a meal silently, I am aware that the tables of those who dine around us are often quiet, and though I’m hard-pressed to find a situation in which I have nothing to say, I know that some meals would benefit from an icebreaker of sorts. Think about how much fun a first date would be if you could scribble on a piece of paper or show off your flower-drawing skills! How relaxing it would be to come home from work and decompress by filling in a beautiful design! (Glass of wine optional.)

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Not just Paint By Numbers… OIL Painting By Numbers

Years ago, when I was having a tough week, my friend, Melissa, suggested that I buy a paint-by-numbers kit at Michael’s. “It will distract you,” she said, “but also help you to focus.” I thought it sounded like a silly plan, but I was intrigued. Off I went, through the fake flower aisles, and selected a “painting” of an underwater seascape. Once I finished my masterpiece, I promptly tossed it in the trash, but the important part had happened already: I had allowed myself a few hours each night to focus on color and light, to stay within the lines at a time when it felt like everything was out of control. Time passed quickly and my focus helped me to both zone out, and be present, at the same time.

Coloring does the same thing, minus the embarrassment of letting the woman at the Michael’s register know that, for the next few weeks, you’ll be using paints #9, #13, and #22 to try to recreate a Van Gogh. Give it a try sometime soon. You can pick up a respectable 96-color Crayola box at any CVS, and I dare you not to smile when you open it up. While you may not get to select only your very favorite colors, just having a rainbow of possibility at hand should be a good shot of beauty for the day.

Prepare yourself for a wild evening.
Prepare yourself for a wild evening.


*Please note that while I am grateful to be able to make a 64-count box filled with 16 each of my 4 favorite colors, I would prefer to be able to choose, say, 4 each of my favorite 16 colors. If I wanted to get Elaina a box of “every pink” from the 64 crayon color line, I would need to choose at least 14 pinks.

The Case for Journals

As someone who has kept a diary on and off since the age of 4, I can vouch for the fact that reading about everyday events from the past is really wonderful. It is a pleasure to see when and how I was writing, what I was focusing on, who I mention in my entries. It’s also nice to be able to “account for” my days throughout the years when I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday. In fact, I just realized, while typing this, that I haven’t yet had lunch today!

This article from the NY Times’ OpTalk page (which happily cites Pennebaker, of course), looks into new research that shows that “recording our run-of-the-mill, daily experiences, rather than just our highs and lows, could bring us unexpected joy.” Ting Zhang and colleagues asked people to write two short journal entries (what they did and how they felt): one on Valentine’s Day and another on a “regular” day. Subjects were then asked to rate how “extraordinary” each day was – and how much they felt they would enjoy reading each entry in the future. Perhaps because the afterglow from boxes of chocolate is so strong, subjects did not feel that they would enjoy recounting their everyday experiences as much as they would a “special” day. However, according to the study, “ordinary events came to be perceived as more extraordinary over time, whereas perceptions of extraordinary events did not change across time.”

There is a certain beauty in the time capsule that is a journal and, if you use a traditional book and a pen, that beauty comes nicely packaged in your own handwriting. (Handwriting can be enjoyable to examine, as well – messy writing from journaling on a bumpy train while abroad; neat writing while penning a swooning entry about your new love interest.) Looking back on how you mentioned your fiancé in an entry well before you really got to know each other, or smiling while you remember that you used to do the dishes every night together before you got a dishwasher, or reading about how much you used to hate waking up for the class that led you to choose your current career – these are unique glimpses of the sweetness and serendipity of our lives.

Hindsight is hardly 20/20. As we move down a road, the things behind us get smaller and distorted. Reading our own words, from a “real-time” journal entry, helps us to avoid needing to squint as we look backwards on our own journey. We don’t need to piece together the fuzzy clues and memories; we can read it right there on the page. Even glancing back over your Day Planner as the year comes to a close can be rewarding. It’s pretty cool to know that you on April 18, you met your brother for coffee at that place you’d been meaning to try, and on October 2, you and your partner went to dinner with his cousins. Rereading journals, noting these little moments that might have been missed memories, instead cements them in our brains, allowing them to become part of our personal narrative. At the very least, they become a nice thing to reflect on.

Day slip by, weeks race on, years pass in a blink. We can’t control it, but we can use journals to be more mindful of the time we have. So find the type of journal that works for you and give it a try.

This research does more than support my love for recording life. It supports my true belief that even, and especially, in the “ordinary” lives the “extraordinary.” It’s just a matter of how you look at it and, perhaps, when.

The Case for Journals: Types of Journals

Interested in keeping a journal? Some journal types to try:

– Basic Journal: pen and paper, generally bound in a book. Write as much or as little as you’d like. Skip a week or write twice a day. Record daily events, record “extraordinary” days. Maybe include some Doodles. Up to you.

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– Art Journal: often pen and a book, as well, this is mostly drawings. Can be used to harness your creative thoughts, or to record the Basic Journal events using visual art.

– Poetry Journal: no need to show this to anyone. But if you liked writing poetry as a teenager, and sometimes feel like you don’t have the creative outlet that is right for you, give this a shot.

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– Phone Journal: we’re on our phones half the day anyway. Open up the Notes apps, or find a journal app, and use the moments on line at the store, or a few evening minutes as you wind down from the day, to type out a few thoughts on your personal current events.

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– Computer Journal (aka The Doogie Journal): if you, like Doogie Howser, would prefer to wind down each day by entering your thoughts and lessons-learned onto your computer, go for it! You may want to password-protect, and be sure not to use your work laptop for this purpose.

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– Gratitude Journal/Went-Well Journal: as I mentioned in my last post, these journals can be very relaxing – and they are proven to increase your happiness levels. Every night (or morning), jot down 3-5 things for which you are grateful from that day. (For Well Wells, write 3-5 things that, yep, went well that day.) These can be serious things (“Sara’s biopsy results were fine.”) or more day-to-day gratitudes (“Nick made the bed this morning.”). With a few days, the results of priming yourself to seek out more things for the list (i.e., priming yourself to find the positives in every day), will be evident.

– Day Planner (aka Tiny Writing Journal): maybe you already keep a Day Planner or use a calendar/scheduler online or on your computer (I do both, but that’s another story), and maybe you don’t want to have another book to think about every day. No worries. Just make sure to record some personal stuff, in addition to your professional obligations. (Note: be sure to do this in a private way; your colleagues don’t need to see that Wednesday at 9pm is “snuggle time” every time they try to schedule a meeting with you.) Easy things to note: what you ate for lunch or dinner, what you wore, who you talked to on the train, what the weather was like, and for all of these, how you felt about it. Easy entrée into the world of journaling. When you get tired of squeezing your thoughts into writing small enough to fit into the little calendar boxes, I suggest finding a thin Moleskine or Muji notebook and starting with the Basic Journal! You’ll be smiling about last June’s trip to the beach in no time.

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Muji Notebooks: 4 for $4
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Moleskine notebooks: 3 for $8.95; each book has pockets and some pages are detachable