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Mind over matter


March 2016

Donít have time to relax? Then make time.

For some, the act itself seems overwhelming or cumbersome, requiring too much time and effort. But what if carving out time to relax was really more manageable than you thought?

We sought advice from six local experts with both clinical and holistic backgrounds when curating a list of mindfully efficient ways to relax. Hereís our A to Z guide to finding your inner zen.


As humans, the tendency to hold ourselves to the highest standards is often detrimental to our mental health. Whatís more? Our expectations of others are just as unrealistically high. The simple act of being aware of these tendencies ó and learning to control them ó can be life-altering. "Awareness is the key," says Dr. Donald Roth, a psychologist with Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. "From a very practical standpoint, people need to develop the ability to give themselves permission to let go. Decrease your expectations of yourself and others."

Belly Breathing

Di Philippi, a holistic anxiety therapist with Wellness Counseling Milwaukee in Brookfield, says mindful belly breathing, a combination of diaphragmatic breathing and respiratory control, is the first tool she teaches her patients, who often suffer from stress or anxiety. "Instead of taking a deep breath, you focus on keeping the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale the same. Youíre focusing only on your breathing during that time," she explains. "We know that it has a physiological effect on the body and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Thatís the part of the nervous system thatís lacking in most people because of stress and needs to be built up more."

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A more preventative approach rooted in neuroscience, cognitive behavioral therapy involves examining ó and likely changing ó the way you think. "Look at your thinking and think differently," says Philippi. "The way youíve been thinking has created your stress. If you want a different result, you need to think differently. The idea is to get to the root cause of thinking so we donít have the same cause of stress in the first place."


Driving can be an incredibly stressful activity, but it can also be an utterly relaxing one. The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is perhaps the most well-renowned nearby ó a 115-mile route weaving through the southern and northern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. "If youíre a passenger in the car, youíre really taking in all the surroundings. Try to be fully aware of what youíre looking at," recommends Mark Jensen, a licensed clinical social worker with Aurora Health Care.


It may seem glaringly obvious, but exercising is one of the most effective ways to relieve stress and anxiety. "It releases a lot of endorphins," explains Jensen. "A lot of the pent-up energy that comes from anxiety really does get released when you can just work that out." "Even just a 20-minute walk can be helpful," echoes Roth.


Andy Larson, a former corporate accountant, opened Float Milwaukee in Walkerís Point last August. The concept is surprisingly straightforward: You float, quite literally, in a flotation tank filled with 10 inches of water and 900 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts for 60 minutes. The water is heated to an average skin temperature, reducing the sensation between body and water.

"Anyone could get something out of it," says Larson. "Physically, you have your relaxation, stress relief and meditation facilitated. Thereís pain relief because you donít have pressure in your joints." He says those suffering from chronic migraines and rheumatoid arthritis can also benefit from floating. Mentally, floating can aid in managing stress and anxiety. "When youíre in that state with everything taken away, your brain is able to process things internally that youíre working on," Larson explains.


A study published in Stress and Health journal found that chewing gum was associated with lower levels of perceived stress. Gum chewers were also less likely to be depressed and to have seen their doctor for high blood pressure or high cholesterol. "The gum will help with restlessness. It gets your mouth moving," explains Jensen.


"We are in one of the prettiest places in the world, right here, with the Kettle Moraine State Forest and beautiful natural resources," enthuses Dianne Frances, a psychotherapist with her own practice in Milwaukee. "Even just walking a little bit out in nature could be very restorative. Youíre doing a lot of positive things at once ó sunlight is significant, cardiovascular exercise, and thereís also a shift in our biochemistry when weíre out among trees and breathing fresh air, taking in the beauty and allowing time to be quiet and reflective." Roth agrees. "Research has shown that the impact of being in nature on the brain is very soothing and calming," he adds.

Inversion Therapy

"Inversions will reverse the flow of blood, so theyíre getting more blood to your heart versus taking it away from the heart. The posture will be very energizing," says Kate Dean, a certified yoga instructor with Milwaukee Power Yoga, BrewCity Yoga and Get Hot Yoga. "After work, or even halfway through, take legs up the wall for a bit. The posture lets all of that bad stuff drain away, and it also helps you build core strength and upper body strength." Dean adds that confidence can also soar. "The first couple of times can be very humbling, but once you get that first headstand, you kind of feel like you can do anything."


This isnít your ordinary "Dear Diary," says Frances. She recommends purchasing a notepad reserved solely for journaling ó and for nothing more. "What I suggest to people is to put something in it every day. It doesnít matter what it is. Think of it as a way of off-loading something youíre carrying, like a steam valve. Give yourself a chance to get some relief by pouring something out. Getting into a routine of doing that every day is extremely therapeutic, especially when you donít have the requirement of what it should look like," she says.

Frances cautions against rereading old entries, though. "Do not go back and read," she stresses. "As weíre processing and going through a lot of things, how you feel about something today hopefully wonít be how you will feel about it in two weeks or a month. Youíll get worked up again and very agitated (if you reread entries)."


Practice kindness ó for yourself, that is. "There has to be some sort of balance with treating yourself like a good friend," says Frances. "Appreciate yourself and treat yourself like someone you actually like. We buy flowers for others, but why not treat ourselves to a bouquet? We just donít get taught that. We donít grow up learning that stuff."


Many people have an unrealistic view of what can be accomplished in a certain amount of time. "Finding a way to make a to-do list that works for you is important," says Frances. "Breaking it down is also important when it comes to time. You have a lot to do ó how are you going to get it done? Write down everything you need to do, and then come at it from what absolutely has to get done by tomorrow. Sometimes we use that term Ďhave toí when itís not realistic. Give a reasonable estimate of how long each one of those things will take. How much do you need to break those down to get them done?"


Intimidated by meditation? Donít worry ó youíre not alone.

"The problem is that there are literally hundreds of kinds of meditation," says Philippi. "When people say, ĎIím going to meditate,í thatís going to mean so many different things."

The key, she says, is finding a way to focus your mind so that both your mind and body are in the same place at the same time, doing one thing and working together. "The body can only be in one place at one time, but the mind can be all over creation," Philippi empathizes, noting that experiencing intrusive thoughts during meditation is completely normal. "Focus on your breathing without trying to change it, knowing that the mind is going to stray ó thatís just what it will do. The training of meditation is about noticing when the mind goes somewhere else, catching it, and then bringing it back to focusing on the body."

"There is not a right way or a wrong way," Frances adds. "Itís about getting more peace. The most important thing is to have some regular practice. If what you have is five minutes a day and thatís the best you can do right now, then you start with five minutes per day. The success of each meditation is not measured by that meditation, but by the fact that you did it. Itís that regularity that brings people real change."


A quick, 20-minute nap can have a profoundly beneficial effect on both your physical and mental health. "A lot of people struggle with sleep issues, and theyíre given instructions not to nap during the day," says Roth. "But if people can establish a routine where they are able to take a 20-minute nap before 3 p.m. so they can still fall asleep later at night, they should. Weíre so sleep deprived, and sleep is so restorative."


"Just the act of cleaning out the closet can give you the release that you can take on something huge," says Frances. Any incremental change, no matter how small, helps. "Donít make it a mountain you canít climb. If you donít have the energy to organize your kitchen cupboards, start with one corner of one shelf in one cupboard. That process of beginning will help you to start imagining what you will do next." Still feeling overwhelmed? Frances recommends hiring a professional. "Professional organizers are not going to be shocked at whatever you have. Organizing is their business ó this is what they do," she says.


That signature unconditional love ó both for your pet and from your pet ó is a powerful connection, and one that can allow us to tap into deeper emotions weíre often inclined to keep in. "Iíve found people, both adults and children, are able to talk about things that are quite difficult in a way that feels safe when a pet is nearby," says Frances, who uses animal-assisted psychotherapy in her own practice. "There is a biochemical reaction that happens to us when we are around animals, petting and playing with them. A biochemical shift happens in the brain that isnít much different from what an antidepressant does. Our mood and health are generally improved."

Quiet Your Mind

Briefly quieting your mind ó or, at the very least, refocusing it away from negative thoughts Ė can be done. "Take time to ground yourself. Put your feet on the floor, feel your feet on the floor, and get back to where you are and not where your mind is going," Jensen instructs. "We also talk about using an ice cube in your hand to get your mind focused on the actual ice cube and not the stress thatís going on around you. The more mindful you are of what youíre doing and where you are, the more you can regulate stress and prevent other stressors from happening."

Reiki Therapy

Reiki therapy is a Japanese technique used to reduce stress and promote relaxation. "Reiki is that energy level," explains Philippi, who has been a Reiki therapist for more than 15 years. "The therapy works with the energy systems in the body to help clear out any blockages in the energy system. Stress, for example, would be considered a blockage in the system." The treatment involves lying on a massage table, fully clothed, as a therapist lightly touches specific areas just above your body or on your body to clear out negative energy. "The idea is to have the energy free flowing among all of your chakras, which are the energy centers of your body," Philippi adds. "You get that sense of relaxation and letting go of that stress. It feels very relaxing and rejuvenating."

Sensory Stimulation

One of the simplest ways to reduce stressful thinking is to engage in an act that stimulates the senses. Roth recommends washing the dishes. "Itís an immediate sensory experience ó the temperature of the water, the smell of the dish detergent, the wetness of the water and the texture of the dishes," he says. "Bringing yourself back to the immediate sensory experience is a key skill. It brings the mind back from whatever narrative it has about the future or regrets about the past."

"I often think about when our grandparents were younger, when people would take their time with things," Roth continues. "The mundane (like the act of washing the dishes) is actually where itís at ó itís where life is happening. The excitement and worry in our heads is unnecessary and stress-inducing, and not grounded in reality."

Turn on the Tunes

A 2013 study titled "Trends in Cognitive Sciences" found that listening to music was more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery. "When I ask people whatís helpful for them in terms of stress and anxiety, music comes up on a regular basis," says Roth. "As people are taking time to listen to music, theyíre bringing their awareness to something in addition to whatever they may be stressed about."

Visit a Museum

"Museums are soothing in and of themselves, with their lighting and ambiance," says Jensen. "Visiting a museum is a good way of putting yourself in a new situation that causes you to pay attention to whatís going on." The visual stimulation allows the mind to focus elsewhere, preventing the intake of negative thoughts.

Xís and Oís

"The ability to give and receive affection helps our biochemistry. It helps us to feel relief," Frances explains. "Thereís plenty of research about people who donít get hugged and how it can negatively affect your mental health if youíre not able to give and receive affection."

She also recommends expressing appreciation to the people who give our lives meaning. "Being able to sort of Ďcountí the things weíre appreciative of helps us to feel better and more appreciated," she adds.


Sure, we often yawn when weíre tired or bored, but research shows that yawning is also neurologically beneficial. One study linked yawning to an increase in dopamine, the brain neurotransmitter often associated with reward or pleasure, and Dr. Andrew Newburg, a leading neurotheology researcher, dubbed yawning "one of the best-kept secrets in neuroscience," claiming the act brings a heightened sense of cognitive awareness.

Zen Zone

Philippi encourages clients to create a safe space for themselves ó a "zen zone" of sorts. "It can be as simple as one little corner of a room," she says. "Or in the bathtub. You can even be fully clothed. Shut the bathroom door and take a blanket so it feels cozy." Find a space free from visual distractions and clutter.

"Whatís important about the zen zone is turning it into a ritual," Philippi continues. "It sends a cue to your brain and your body that this is your let go time, your down time, your me time." m

Wander the Aisles

"If youíre someone who can go into a store and feel comfortable there, then window shopping can be a great stress release," Jensen recommends. Go alone, and spend an hour or so absorbing your surroundings.


"Technology is wonderful, but it has made us accessible 24/7," admits Frances. "That in itself brings an amount of stress ó we feel like we cannot get away, and we canít get relief. For a lot of people, that feeling is very troubling." She recommends having a "no phone zone," whether it be your bathroom or bedroom, or limiting your email response times to one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. "Efficiency experts who work with business people actually suggest that we limit email communications to specific time frames," Frances continues. "Weíre more effective and can accomplish more when weíre not distracted."


This story ran in the March 2016 issue of: