Happy & Productive: Getting Things Done, including Self-Care

ImageHow do you stay relaxed and productive at the same time? How does your to-do list get checked off, without your body and mind getting crossed off?

In wellness workshops and in the acupuncture clinic, addressing stress and anxiety is unavoidable. Chinese medicine has a 2000+ year understanding of the effects of stress on our bodies. As biomedical research now shows, stress is a major factor in a number of chronic and long-term illnesses.

What are small steps we can take toward clarity, focus and efficiency – while staying relaxed, cheerful and loving in the meantime? How do we self-structure our days (especially for students, self-employed, etc.)?  I put these questions out to my network, and added their tips to my own ideas here – thanks for all the input!

1) Heart-mind check-in: “I have reduced long “to do” lists that I used to find overwhelming (and triggered all kinds of self-hate, shame, disappointment) into a 3 item “ta da” list.” – Nrinder Nann (see Comments on this post)

Are you managing time, emotions, or both? These are two major sides to “stress management”. Often responsibilities feel much weightier because of underlying fears – e.g. that we’ll fail, be a “bad” partner, parent or employee, or lose approval of family and friends. Guilt, shame, or self-criticism can become serious energy drains, and we may cope with procrastination/distraction cycles, or over-control of ourself and others. It’s always good to be check in with ourselves, and see how our emotions are driving our work or vice versa. (See the comments on this post for some insights!) Ideas:

  • Mentally “firing” everyone from having to like me – that’s my job, no one else’s!
  • Journalling about my stressors.
  • Renaming my “to-do” list: “Ideas of stuff I could do.”
  • Replacing “should” with “could.”
  • Enlisting in counselling or coaching support.

2) Slow down to get faster. “Ironically my way of dealing with stress and a long To Do list is to slow down and be in the moment. I prioritize better, am more efficient plus happier” – Zainab Amadahy, swallowsongs.com (Comments)

Time is such a weird phenomenon. By being more present with each breath, thought, or action (and thinking less about the past/future), time passes more slowly (it’s true – many meditators and spiritual seekers can attest to this!). With practice, thoughts can get clearer, decisions faster, and work more efficient. Ideas:

  • Set a timer to go off regularly throughout the day – stop, focus on breathing or your senses, and just enjoy the moment.
  • Go outside with no phone for a 5 minute fresh air break, and look at birds and plants, or walk ‘mindfully’ (i.e. only paying attention to your body walking).
  • Grow a meditation habit: go to a course or start with 5 minutes a day (see my Resources page for meditation resources in Toronto).

3) Get clear on life priorities. Heard the story about the rocks in the jar? Recognize what is truly important to you (e.g. close relationships, community, health and well-being, spiritual practice, etc.) and make sure they get a spot in your schedule first. (note: most ‘rock in the jar’ versions I’ve read list one’s “job” as a medium-sized rock, not the biggest…) Ideas:

  • Take 5 minutes a week to block off upcoming times in your schedule (e.g. quality time with loved ones, regular meals, exercise, walking in the ravine, getting a treatment or counselling, sex, movies, winding down before bed, etc.)
  • Honour self-care dates for your mind & body like you’d honour a date with a precious loved one (because aren’t you precious? Ok… self-love, that’s a whole other blog post! 🙂
  • This article helps analyze how we’re dividing our time, pro-actively and reactively (suggested by my wonderful sis Amy!) 

4) Say No!  Essential to make #3 work. Often our bodies are stuck in a stress response, and we feel like every decision/demand is life or death… when most aren’t. This is especially true for those of us who have been through some kind of trauma. Ideas:

  • Practice saying “no” on a regular basis, and realizing that was okay.
  • Be okay with backing out, downgrading to a maybe, while communicating clearly as soon as you realize you’re overcommitted.
  • Forgive yourself – and others when they do this to you.
  • Google Search “personal boundaries.”

5) PLAY (with planning)!  Everyone has their own planning style. Do you know what works for you these days? (NOTE: and what works for the person you’re dating – it’s often a bit different, no?). Lots of people had suggestions for scheduling and planning, and you’ll find some of them in the comments (feel free to add more!). Try adopting a playful, experimental, and flexible attitude toward time management and self-care (rather than being rigid and hard on ourselves…).

(Personally, I love planning – helps me shift from being reactive to proactive, to prioritize and commit realistically. But after many “Type A personality” (i.e. go go go) years, I made a conscious shift and discovered I also love NON-planning! Open-ended time allows for spontaneity and ‘going with the flow’, such a delightful way to experience each present moment – if you have INTENTIONS for the day/month (see #7 below), you can still get things done, just in a more relaxed and creative way, and… isn’t that the point?). Ideas:

  • colour-coding calendars to see work-life and self-care “balance” at a glance
  • phone alarm reminders
  • my new temporary obsession – to-do list management software
  • I like severely limiting the amount of time I give myself for a task; it counters my perfectionist/’tunneling’ tendencies, forces me to focus, and let’s me tick something off, and move on, knowing I did the best I could, given the time available.

6) (Get support to) tackle the “hard” stuff.  Some tasks are daunting (like this article was for me)! But if they are truly important for our long-term priorities and intentions, how can we actually get to doing them? Many have mentioned breaking them down into subtasks or steps. Ideas: 

  • Njeri Damali Campbell suggested this creative idea around “micro-movements” – breaking a bigger project into tiny steps that can be done in 5 minutes, and scheduling those 5 minute blocks into the day.
  • Tackle a hard task first thing in the day, when the mind is fresher.
  • Alternate hard and easy tasks.
  • GET SUPPORT!!!! A study partner, gym buddy, meditation friend, tutor, counsellor or coach can do WONDERS!

7) Set intentions, not inflexible goals. An intention means setting a target for our efforts, but also acknowledging we can’t control everything (other people, unexpected changes, etc.). You can set result-oriented intentions (e.g. “I intend to get to my laundry today” or process-oriented intentions “I intend to take regular breaks today, to keep my mind fresh and relaxed.”) When I’m more clear what my intention in doing something is, steps fall into place easily and I’m less prone to getting caught up in the details and derailments. Ideas:

  • Set a process-oriented or even “emotional perspective” intention at the start of the day (e.g. “today I will focus on being of service to others, and not on how I look to them,” or “today I will focus on gratitude” or “today I will encourage and praise myself for whatever I get done, no matter how much left I didn’t get done.”) 
  • Reminding myself of such intentions throughout the day keeps me aware of the bigger picture, and less caught up in the daily wins and frustrations.
  • Short- and long-term intentions can be shared with friends for further accountability and support

8) Cultivate unconditional friendliness toward self. “A lot of self-shame about laziness and procrastinating also come up for me, so I make sure I give love to those parts of me.” – Charm Torres (Comments)

The best definition I ever heard of “self-care” was “learning to treat our body and mind as we would a dear friend” – meaning, with compassion, support and acceptance, not with harsh criticism. Don’t make “self-care commitments” another thing to beat ourselves up about. We’ve all been through a lot and are just doing our best to live, be happy and do good. Ideas for questions to ponder:

  • Can I separate myself self-worth from validation and achievement from others? 
  • Have I subconsciously bought into the dominant (capitalist) culture that only values human life by “productivity” and economic “usefulness” (and devalues the work of love, care, connecting, and creativity)? 
  • What’s my worst fear if I “fail” or don’t finish this? 
  • In pursuing this goal/success, am I really pursuing approval from others, and ultimately… love?

“Don’t worry if you don’t get all the things done on one day. Most of the times the list is way too long anyway and often unexpected tasks come along (calls, emails, meetings). Rather celebrate the achievement of finishing the tasks you have completed properly and knowing that you have given your best.” – Sarah Lei (Comments)

In sum – play with these ideas, see what works for you, share your experiences, and get support!  Ultimately, accept uncertainty, embrace paradox, seize the day and let go. You did your best 🙂

These are just some ideas, and this document is a work in progress. Feedback and more ideas welcome – please comment below!

Like this article? Click here to receive a monthly newsletter with free articles, resources and workshop/event announcements. (p.s. My emails won’t be more often than once a month, as writing these articles is a hard task for me, so I have to separate it into do-able ‘subtask’ chunks and set deadlines, get support, and keep my self-criticism, perfectionism, and procrastination in check!)

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5 Food Tips for Stress and Anxiety

mainimage1) It’s not just WHAT we eat, but HOW.  Many of us rush around trying to meet obligations and deadlines, and a strict diet can definitely become one more stressor, one more thing to be hard on ourselves for. Step One can be just scheduling in enough time to sit down and focus on enjoying and savouring our food, chewing it thoroughly (not watching TV, reading or texting at the same time).  When we scarf down our food and barely chew it, our body has to work hard to absorb the nutrients. We end up with digestive issues, get hungry soon afterward, and may be wasting all the extra money we spend on choosing organic or “healthy” foods.

So keep this in mind when you read the rest of this article!  WHATEVER you’re eating, as “good” or “bad” as it might be, the MOST IMPORTANT THING IS JUST ENJOY IT! Pleasure and presence is healing!

2) Eat regular meals.  That’s right, try to eat at roughly similar times each day, and sit down for your meal, instead of grazing and snacking on the run throughout the day. Many people struggle with craving foods they know contribute to anxiety and chronic health issues (like sugar or baked goods with wheat, dairy, etc.).  Regularity helps our digestive system know when to turn on and off (which is part of the “rest and digest” versus “stress/fight or flight” nervous system balance), and helps prevent erratic blood sugar highs and crashes that increase anxiety and stress.

3) Eat whole, unprocessed grains. Whole grains (e.g. brown rice, whole millet, rye, whole or steel cut oats, etc.) contain important stress-reducing nutrients that refined and processed grains (most breads and pastas, white rice or flour, etc.) don’t. Refined grains act more like sugar, i.e. leading to blood sugar peaks and crashes that can contribute to stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, the germ and bran in whole grains are considered “bitter” in Chinese medicine. This means they can “cool down” the Heart, decreasing anxiety and insomnia. In Western food science, B vitamins, magnesium and other essential nutrients are contained in the germ and bran. Whole wheat, brown rice and oats specifically calm the mind, according to Chinese medicine (caution that many people don’t digest wheat very well, especially North American strains of wheat that have been highly modified).

4) Eat lots of veggies, especially leafy greens. The cabbage family (cauliflower, broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, etc.), beets, radishes and mildly pungent spices and herbs (basil, dill, coriander, etc.) all especially help to clear and move stagnation in our energetic “Liver” organ system, which holds much of our stress. Foods with a “bitter” quality can also be helpful to calm the “Heart” and “Liver” systems, contributing to emotional balance (e.g. rye, romaine, asparagus, quinoa, dandelion root, chamomile, etc.).

5) Balance your caffeine intake. Some people can take more coffee than others. However, even if we don’t notice, most people do feel at least a bit of increased nervousness, mental agitation, or “buzz-crash” cycle. Caffeine makes your adrenals pump out more stress-coping hormones, which can help deal with an immediate need for more attention/alertness. Over the long run, our adrenals can get fatigued and cope less well with stress on their own. So depending on coffee to keep going can be a “short-term gain, long-term lose” situation, and lead to greater stress, fatigue, and anxiety overall.  Make sure to drink at least 2 cups of water for each cup of coffee you drink, and explore alternative energy boosters like exercise, fresh air, and sleeping earlier!

Like this article and want more?  Click here to receive a monthly newsletter with free articles, resources and workshop/event announcements. My emails won’t be more often than once a month – I don’t have time to bombard you!

Two Anti-Anxiety (vegan, gluten-free) recipes

Vegan soup with mung bean and kaleI’ve chosen and adapted two vegan, gluten-free recipes below, for their anti-anxiety ingredients (based on the Traditional Chinese Medicine analysis of these foods).

Mung Bean and Kale Soup (serves ~6)

  • 1 tablespoon refined organic coconut oil
  • 20-25 small crimini (or white) mushrooms, cubed
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 organic red pepper, cubed
  • 1 bunch organic lacinato kale, deveined, coarsely chopped
  • 2-3 organic roma tomatoes
  • 1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 small bunch basil leaves
  • 11/2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons dried seaweed (wakame, dulse, etc)
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional – omit for increased anti-anxiety benefits)
  • sea salt (to taste)
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 1 cup small green lentils
  • 1/2 cup mung beans
  • 1/2 cup quinoa
  • 1 cup light coconut milk
  1. Heat the oil in a heavy deep pot or dutch oven, then add and sautee the cubed mushrooms, onions, and red bell peppers with turmeric and cumin until tender, about 7-8 minutes.
  2. Add the lentils, mung beans, crushed pepper, seaweed, salt and about 3-4 cups of water (or broth of choice), and allow them to cook (simmer) covered for about 30-35 minutes (check to make sure they are cooked and tender-you may need to adjust your water, as in, add more).
  3. when the lentils and mung beans are cooked and tender, add the quinoa, cubed tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, kale, and most (3/4) of your coconut milk.
  4. simmer another 10-15 minutes. add your freshly squeezed lemon juice (adjust amount to your taste, or omit). top with chopped basil and your remaining coconut milk. serve hot.

Modified from this recipe

Calming and Balancing Congee (2-3 servings)

  • Job’s Tears / Coix Lacryma-Jobi (yi yi ren) 薏米 – 30 g
  • Longan Fruit (long yan rou) 桂圆 / 龍眼肉 – 30 g
  • Chinese Jujube / red dates (da zao) 大枣 – 4 to 6
  • Lotus Seeds (lian zi) 莲子 – 30 g
  • Dried lily bulb / Bulbus Lilii (bai he) 百合 – 30 g
  • Brown rice (can pre-blend in blender to encourage it to fall apart more) – half cup
  • Raw honey, to taste

1. Soak all herbal ingredients for about 15 minutes and rinse.
2. Rinse rice and put all ingredients in a pot with about 6 to 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil and lower heat to medium to cook for about 70 minutes to about 3 cups of congee.
3. Add some raw honey, if preferred.

Modified from this recipe.

Like this article and want more?  Click here to receive a monthly newsletter with free articles, resources, recipes, and workshop/event announcements. My emails won’t be more often than once a month – I don’t have time to bombard you!

Acu for Anxiety Discount Clinic (sliding scale event $30-$70)

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Needles are nice!

Acupuncture needle-phobes and novices welcome! There is no better time to try out acupuncture in a gentle, friendly environment.  Come to the Acu for Anxiety Discount Clinic on Tuesday Oct 29, 2:30-8:30 pm in Downtown Toronto (St. George and Dupont, in the Annex). I’ve open up a couple more time slots for people!

A Good Read – “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”

ImageAs one of Pema Chodron’s grateful students, I have been learning the most pressing and necessary lesson of all: how to keep opening wider my own heart.” – Alice Walker

A generous friend once left me a copy of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron, American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Nova Scotia’s Gampo Abbey. I’ve flipped back through these warm-hearted, insightful essays time and again, and they’ve never failed to provide comfort and perspective. In moments that seem almost unbearable, she reminds us that “this very moment is the perfect teacher.” How do we face painful emotions, fears and chaos with compassion and friendly curiosity? How do we apply the practice and concepts of meditation to our everyday conflicts, disappointments, losses, and stuckness? How do we bring kindness and wisdom to our work and social action? Pema’s voice is soothing, firm and gentle, and her love tough and honest.

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” – Pema Chodron

In Chinese medicine, fall is a time of grieving and letting go. Sometimes we approach “healing” as an attempt to control our bodies, minds, emotions, or circumstances. What I’ve come to believe is it’s the opposite of control, but lovingly watching and letting go. Letting go of control and of the “should’s” (how we should feel, how that person should treat us, how situations should turn out, etc.). As Pema says, to make space for it all – to be fully alive is to know I’ll be okay, when faced with the full palette of human experience and emotion.

And on that note, I wish you a beautiful, messy, real season of change.

Self-Care for Anxiety: Free workshop + dinner + acupuncture!

remedies-anxiety-400x400Check out a workshop I’m offering September 17th, in conjunction with the Centre for Women and Trans People at University of Toronto!  It’s on “Self-Care for Anxiety: A Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach.” It will include a free dinner of calming foods, a sharing of tools such as exercises, meditations, and self-acupressure points, and will end with an (optional) de-stress ear acupuncture treatment.

The workshop is open to women, genderqueer/gender non-conforming people and trans people. Click here for more info and to register!