Thoughtful Tips for Challenging Times

who coronavirus tips
who coronavirus tips

There’s definitely a lot of information and advice being fired out from all places right now to help people during this tricky time with COVID.

But the best advice I’ve read so far comes from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is not coincidentally, the best place we should be turning to for scientifically-backed, expert advice for how to manage and deal with the situation anyway.

I thought I’d summarise and share their latest notes in case anyone had missed them in the media as they are genuinely useful.

The tips cover basic nutrition (eat a health and nutritious diet, don’t smoke and limit your consumption of alcohol) as well as a few more interesting ones on exercise, working environment, mental health and relationships, which I’ve shared here.

  • During this difficult time it’s important to continue looking after your physical and mental health. This will not only help you in the long term; it will also help you fight COVID if you get it.
  • Exercise. If your local or national guidelines allow it go outside for a walk, a run or a ride and keep a safe distance from others. If you can’t leave the house find an exercise video online, dance to music, do some yoga or walk up and down the stairs.
  • If you’re working at home make sure you don’t sit in the same position for long periods; get up and take a three-minute break every 30 minutes. We will be providing more advice on how to stay healthy at home in the coming days and weeks.
  • Look after your mental health. It’s normal to feel stressed, confused and scared during a crisis. Talking to people you know and trust can help. Supporting other people in your community can help you as much as it does them.
  • Check on neighbours, family and friends. Compassion is a medicine.
  • Listen to music, read a book or play a game and try not to read or watch too much news if it makes you anxious.
  • Get your information from reliable sources once or twice a day.
  • Keep in touch with health alerts via the WHO

4 more tips to help you deal with the cocktail of intensity

A somatic therapist friend of mine, who specialises in treating trauma, has also just shared a few of her own tips, based on Trauma First Aid and the yogic practice of restraint.

Yoga Tara is founder of Isha Institute in Nepal, a centre that promotes personal growth and transformation through holistic counselling (follow on @isha_inspired). I hope you find them as valuable as I did. Please feel free to share with others.

Limit your exposure to information

  • Look at the news or collect information one or two times a day, eg, morning and late afternoon.
  • Avoid looking up information before you go to sleep. This is stimulating and triggering. Give yourself one or two hours quiet time before you go to bed.
  • Limit the amount of time you’re getting your info: 15-30min. Not two hours!

Select your sources of information carefully

  • Choose two or three trustworthy news sources for your updates, such as the WHO, CDC.
  • Avoid spending time on social media. It’s a fascinating study on mass panic/fear response, but not the healthiest place to spend time if you want to stay sane!

Choose with whom you are going to talk to about the situation

  • When it comes to discussing your real concerns, beliefs and decisions in relation to the situation, choose one, two or three people with whom you can share and to whom you can listen. 
  • Not everyone is a steady resource at this time. People you may have thought as calm or even keel, might not be. And vice versa.  
  • How do you know who is right for you? You would feel relatively calm and stable (operative word: relatively) with them.

Simplify your to-do list

  • When we feel under threat or under sustained stress, our brain and body go into life-preserving mode and work in different ways than normal.
  • Functions that tend to get compromised are our ability to think clearly, make decisions, analyse and execute (ie get things done). Our ability to manage emotions can also be compromised. We are not under normal conditions, so we cannot expect ourselves to act perfectly ‘normal’.
  • If you’re working from home, if you have children for home / online schooling, let yourself off the hook and reduce your output or to-do list by 25-30% (at least!).
  • Give yourself and others some extra space and time to get things done. Our brains and bodies are working harder than usual so take the expectation off from ‘normal productivity’.
  • If you or others around you feel fuzzy headed, irritable, tired, please know this is normal.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. 

Super Easy Breathing Exercise to Help Stress, Anxiety and Sleep

breath victor-garcia-BiGS_w9t7FU-unsplash

I wrote this post a while ago, long before Coronavirus kicked in, but it’s been sitting in my drafts until now, when suddenly it seemed more relevant than ever to post it.

More than a few friends recently have talked about their stress and anxiety, with levels ranging from I can’t get dressed in the morning without crying, to I feel so overwhelmed at work I can’t sleep properly at night.

So I thought I’d write a few words about a very simple breathing exercise that’s not only helped me drift off more peacefully at night, but has been scientifically proven to help increase relaxation and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

How does it work? Deep, slow and controlled breathing has been shown to activate the body’s relaxation response, leading to changes in the autonomic, parasympathetic and central nervous system.  

I’ve been doing versions of this simple breathwork exercise almost every night for many years as it’s so unbelievably simple but incredibly effective. Once you build a habit, you won’t let this one go.

The best thing is, you don’t need to carve out any extra time in the day to do it – you just do it lying in bed when you’re ready to sleep, so there’s no excuses for not having time. There’s literally nothing else to do apart from try to relax into sleep.

It’s typically the time when thoughts start racing and and stress potentially building, so have this breathing exercise ready in times of need.

Ready? It’s super simple…

  • Start by gently placing the hands on the lower abdomen to help connect with your breath.
  • You might feel your hands rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation.
  • Breathe in and out through the nose (mouth gently closed) for a few counts of breath.
  • Start to follow each breath as it moves in and out of the body, wherever it might be – it could be in your belly, throat, chest or elsewhere.
  • After following your breath for a few rounds, start counting your in-breath.
  • Breath in: one, two, three
  • Breathe out: one, two, three
  • After a few rounds you want to start making your out-breath longer than your in breath. Do this by consciously but gently slowing down each exhalation.

So the breathwork pattern will look like:

  • Breath in: one, two, three (an in-breath comfortable for you)
  • Breath out: one, two, three, four, five

Regardless of how long your inhalation is, your can promote the relaxation response by slowing down and making the exhalation longer.

Repeat this cycle of counting a longer out-breath to in-breath four of five times. Sometimes I keep doing this until I physically feel my body untangle and unwind and quite often I’m asleep before I reach ten rounds.

An extra note…

Once you get used to extending the exhalation, you can start experimenting with a gentle hold in between the inhalation and exhalation. This is more like an internal pause rather than a forced hold of breath. It should be totally effortless.

This type of breathing workout helps to slow down your heart rate which reduces the effects of stress on the body. As a result your thoughts may calm and eventually bring the body into a quiet stillness.

Once the physical body settles, the mind follows.

Do this breath exercise whenever you feel you’re getting tense, stressed or locked in a whirl of thoughts-on-loop. Not just in bed, but any time.

A word on meditation…

If you’ve tried meditation or keen to try it but not sure where to start, start here, with the breath.

Learn how to find the breath, follow it, listen to it and watch it. This is a form of meditation in itself as there is just one point of focus, the breath. So whenever your mind begins to wander, you just bring it back to the breath.

This is one of the simplest ways to start meditating as the breath is a physical, tangible, active point of focus. Listening and watching the breath is also a great tool if you are easily distracted or find sitting in silence (trying to meditate!) too challenging.

So give it a go. Commit to just a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing every night for a few days or a week and see how it feels.

Yoga for refugees – volunteering in Lebanon

lebanon refugee camps volunteering bekaa valley
Last year I spent a week in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camps on a yoga for refugees project with Tools for Inner Peace, a new charity which I’m now a trustee on, in collaboration with a local charity, Salam LADC 

Tools for Inner Peace is a long term project set up by Minna Järvenpää to enhance mental health and well-being among refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley through simple, gentle yoga and relaxation techniques. I became involved as one of the charity’s trustees in 2016 and visited Lebanon in April 2017 to see some of the projects in action.

There are over 800,000 refugees in this part of Lebanon and a quarter of the country’s entire population are refugees. Salam charity was founded in Lebanon in 2006 and aims to improve the lives of refugee communities and helping them connect with their host country. Read more about the ethos and founding story of Salam here.

We believe in the necessity of inner peace in every human being (salamladc.org)

Tools for Inner Peace partnered with Salam to provide yoga and relaxation classes to women and children in the camps – although they are officially referred to as settlements.

Life in the settlements (refugee camps)

lebanon refugee camps volunteering salam ladc charity

I spent ten days working with Salam charity on activities ranging from food and materials distribution to setting up a mini cinema for refugee children. See gallery below for pics.

 

In the Bekaa Valley, private farm land has been used to house informal settlements for Syrian families, many of whom have been here between five and seven years now with little sign of any end in sight.

The settlements I visited or drove by were of varying sizes, some housing just a few families others are up to three or four hundred people, mainly Syrian refugees, with new families still arriving (our location in Bekaa Valley was less than 20km from the Syrian border).

Life for families is hard with no formal refugee status to obtain and no certainty over their future. Refugees are easily exploited by farm landlords who can charge high rents for living on their land. It’s also not uncommon for families to work 14-hour days on the farms for $4 a day or sometimes nothing.

Schools might be far to travel to so many children may receive little or no education with few job prospects for adults. This is coupled with an anti-refugee atmosphere as locals often feel Syrians are ‘taking their jobs’, a rhetoric echoed across the world, which hampers chances for integration.

The settlements I visited had lots little children running around, all under the ages of five or six looking slightly dishevelled. Many would have been born in their new host country and know no other way of life. While the slightly older ones would have left their country during school years so are likely to have memories of their past life and possibly even missed out on some years of education.

A few will be taken under the wings of UNCHR to another host country but according to one woman I spoke to this only happens to about five out of a hundred families. She said she hoped one day they can leave the camp by boat or plane and set up life somewhere else.

Yoga for refugees

taking a yoga for refugees in lebanon tools for inner peace

Minna and I joined Salam’s roster of weekly activities such as educational play sessions and food and supplies distribution, as well as organising our own yoga sessions in and around the camps. By the end of last year Minna was running weekly yoga classes in three refugee settlements and two centres that provide services to refugees.

The yoga is so simple but so effective. Simple techniques work on the nervous system to bring about deep relaxation. Through gentle poses and breath work the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated which calms the body and strengthens the relaxation response, while the sympathetic nervous system with its stress response calms down.

One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

The need here is profound. As many as half of refugees are experiencing psychological distress or mental illness. One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and up to 60% in adults. The result of this is tension and anxiety, played out by nightmares, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, loss of concentration, anger and aggression. A key to the treatment of psychological trauma is soothing the nervous system and inducing the relaxation response which is what the yoga does.

Minna set up Tools for Inner Peace has she experienced firsthand the stress and anxiety caused by war while she worked as an international diplomat in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. She discovered yoga and meditation as a means of maintaining balance under stressful and occasionally dangerous circumstances and is now committed to sharing those healing practices with others in need.

 

Tools for Inner Peace also runs yoga classes for refugee groups in London and around the UK thanks to funding from Sport England so if you know of a refugee centre who might benefit from classes please get in touch.
Find out more about our work with Tools for Inner Peace here and the latest crowd-funding campaign, Yoga for Peace here

Yoga for balancing hormones

yanar alkayat tenpilates yoga for hormones
Me and yoga teacher Danielle Willemsen at Ten for Yoga for Hormone Balance class

A few months ago I attended the launch of Ten Health & Fitness’ new class, Yoga for Hormone Balance. Designed to support and strengthen natural hormone function as well as to relax and rejuvenate the body and mind, after trying it out it seemed like the perfect antidote to a fast-paced life that puts a strain on the nervous system and hormones.

“When the sympathetic nervous system is constantly over-active, the adrenals are churning out adrenaline and cortisol to keep us going” says Dr Annaradnams of The Marion Gluck Clinic in London.

A little bit of this is ok when we need to kickstart ourselves into action but when the body is constantly in red alert mode there’s a knock on effect. Without sufficient downtime health and hormones will suffer.

The Ten Yoga for Hormone Balance class is two hours long and created by yoga teacher and movement expert Danielle Willemsen. It focusses on poses that open up the hips, elongate the spine and encourage the four key hormonal glands – pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and ovaries – to behave more harmoniously.

So much of modern yoga is fast-paced and dynamic and on top of an already stressful day and hyped up nervous system the results can be over-stimulating on the body so this new hormone-balancing class is a welcome change of pace.

Yoga was not originally designed to be a workout – in my opinion, if you want to sweat do a cardio class and choose to do yoga to slow down your breath, soften the mind and create more balance, physically and mentally.

Hormone doctors even agree that slow movement can benefit hormone function as it taps into the parasympathetic nervous system to settle the body and in turn, the nervous system.

After trying this Ten Pilates class at the press launch it inspired me to check out what classical yoga says about hormone balancing. For the last seven years I’ve been practicing a classic hatha yoga (Satyananda yoga) which is super slow and meditative and calms everything right down – mind, body and breath. My weekly Wednesday class is like a natural tranquilliser – there’s nothing quite like it – and I leave fully grounded and deeply relaxed.

The Bihar School of Yoga which I’ve been reading recently has an extensive library of books and in Yogic Management of Common Diseases I found a whole chapter on thyroid function. Here are a few extracts if you’re looking for more inspiration on yoga for hormones:

Yoga for the thyroid gland

“Long before medical science knew about the existence of thyroid glands, the yogis had devised practices that maintained healthy glands and metabolism. The good health of the neuroendocrine system was understood to be vital to higher awareness.” (pg. 24-45)

Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) is the most well recognised asana for the thyroid gland. An enormous pressure is placed on the gland by this powerful posture. As the thyroid has one of the largest blood supplies of any body organ, this pressure has dramatic effects on its function, improving circulation and squeezing out stagnant secretions.”

“The most effective pranayama (breathing work) for thyroid problems is ujjayi breath. It acts on the throat area and its relaxing and stimulating effects are most probably due to stimulation of reflex pathways within the throat area which are controlled by the brain stem and hypothalamus.”

“One of the most prominent precipitating factors in states of thyroid imbalance is long-term suppression and blockage of emotional expression. Balancing the emotions and giving a suitable outlet for their expression is an important part of yoga therapy for thyroid disease. Kirtan (signing of mantras collectively) is one of the most useful means. Another is ajapa japa meditation in conjunction with ajjayi breath.”

 xx

Stress-busting aromatherapy and massage

NYR aromatherapy massage course emma robertson

NYR massage aromatherapy course

Did you know the quality of an aromatherapy oil is affected by the quality of the soil and where/how the plant is sourced? Did you also know rose oil was once used as a hangover cure as well as a way to heal a broken heart? And, in addition to relaxation and sleep, essential oil of lavender can also soothe and heal cuts, bites and burns.

I soaked up these fantastic facts and more at the Neal’s Yard Remedies Introduction to Massage course which I was lucky enough to attend last weekend. With it being National Stress Awareness Day last week, alleviating stress was the focus of the day.

I highly recommend this one day course that runs twice a year, especially if you’re excited by the therapeutic benefits of essential oils and wish you could get more massage into your life. Led by Neal’s Yard Remedies Head of Massage, Elaine Tomkins, it’s relaxed and informative with oil blending in the morning and basic hand, neck, back and head massage techniques in the afternoon. Take a partner you like or love and you’ll have a giggle too.

Here I am with beauty freelancer Emma Robertson attempting to give a relaxing head massage but judging by the look on her face I could be causing more pain than pleasure!

NYR aromatherapy massage course emma robertson

How to cure stress with essential oils and aromatherapy:

Rose – it’s one of the most healing (for skin) and anxiety-relieving oils you can choose. Just a few drops with water in an oil burner can calm the mind and prepare it for sleep. My rose oil is burning now as I write…

NYR aromatherapy rose oil burner

It takes 60-100 rose petals to make just one drop of rose essential oil – this fact always makes me wonder how sustainable it is to produce natural rose oil, which is why it’s important to buy from brands that grow organically and show a commitment to the livelihood of growers and farm workers.

Neal’s Yard Remedies has a history of building impressive relationships with its raw materials suppliers and works with a cooperative in southern Turkey for its rose extracts, using organic farming methods and ensuring fair living wages.

Bergamot –  this oil is extracted from the rind of a small (inedible) pear-shaped fruit from a tiny citrus tree (commercially grown in Italy). Bergamot is apparently great with gin (I’ll be trying this) as well as being the distinctive flavour in Earl Grey tea. The scent is uplifting and refreshing with a subtle spikiness.  Blend it with rose in a burner to help soothe nervous anxiety, create a harmonising massage oil or mix it with two drops of lavender for an uplifting bath oil. Along with rose, this was one of my favourites we sniffed.

Frankincense – this ancient oil has been used for religious ceremonies for thousands of years and might remind you of wintery, festive seasons. Its earthy, warm aura feels slightly uplifting and if you blend it with black pepper or citrus oils feels even more powerful. Interestingly, it enhances deep breathing making it great for meditation.

Clary Sage – from these five essential oils we smelled this was my least favourite. The strong muskiness didn’t agree with me at all, however, once blended with bergamot and rose it was far more attractive. This oil is said to help lighten a heavy state of mind, sadness, fatigue or fear. That’s sold it to me.

Holeaf – tipped by our trainer, Elaine as the next oil-to-watch, she predicts more beauty and fragrance brands will be using holeaf to lift their products to life over the next five years. Extracted from a Chinese evergreen tree (the wood of this same tree produces Camphor oil), it can enliven a low mood and low libido. Also good as a post-exercise massage oil to relieve fatigued muscles. Or add to your bath to help with flu, coughs or colds – perfect for this time of year.

If like me you’re fascinated by essential oils and desperate to get some of this vapour energy into your heart, body and mind then here are a few ways Elaine described to drip, pour, mix and burn oils for emotional and physical wellbeing…

1. Burn a few drops with water – inhaling the vapours can have a great effect on mood and emotions.

2. Use as a bath oil – apparently best mixed with full-fat milk to disperse into water more easily or mix with Epsom salts.

3. Apply neat to skin  – please note, not all oils are safe to do this with.

4. Blend with a carrier oil – such as almond or jojoba for a therapeutic massage/body oil.

5. Add to floral water – try orange flower or rose water to make a refreshing facial toner.

6. Combine with unperfumed moisturiser – to nourish and enhance skin.

7. Add a few drops to hot or cold water – to make a healing compress.

…and a few I found searching online which I might try too:

8. Mix 3-5 drops of essential oil to unscented clothes detergent.

9. Mix two teaspoons of tea tree oil with two cups of water in a spray bottle for an oil-purpose household cleaner. (I love this one as I absolutely loathe all the chemical cleaning sprays everyone buys).

10. Soak a cotton ball with patchouli and/or lavender and place in closets to keep moths away from clothes – I’m definitely going to be trying this one as I’m so paranoid about moths eating my clothes.

So there we have it, a very long post about amazing essential oils! I’m off to buy a life-enhancing wardrobe of essential oils, so please pass on any tips you might have too, would love to hear them…

Find out more about Neal’s Yard Remedies courses here.