5 Ways To Stay Open-Hearted In These Uncertain Times

Photo: getty
5 Ways To Stay Open-Hearted In These Uncertain Times

Uncertain may be putting it mildly.

Precarious? Mind-numbing? Disturbing? Maybe, if you’re particularly optimistic.

Exciting? Whether you participated in the worldwide Women's Marches, whether you’re on board with our new administration in Washington, whatever your gender or political persuasion, we’re all feeling a little dazed right now.

To paraphrase one of our founding fathers Thomas Paine, "These are the times that try our souls."

If you’re feeling numbed out or overwhelmed, it’s time to come back to basics — and maybe to try some new ideas to find your center.

Here are 5 self-care tips (including a few surprising ones) to help you rebalance body, mind, and spirit:

1. Stay connected. Don’t hibernate or isolate.

Let me tell you about "tend and befriend".

Some 15 years or so ago, a group of female researchers at UCLA decided to study why their response to stress in their workplace was to come together and schmooze over coffee, while their male colleagues were more apt to hole up in their offices and stew. What they discovered was groundbreaking.

Men and women release a boatload of hormones when under stress.

For men, a big one is testosterone which triggers the "fight or flight" response (like hibernating in your office), while for women (and this was the eye-opener), it's oxytocin — otherwise known as the "hugging hormone" — which prompts them to "tend" to others and to gather in community, hence “tend and befriend”.

But don’t panic, guys. Even if you aren’t equipped with the same level of this nurturing hormone, you’ve still got a choice to dig a little deeper and reach out when you’re stressed out. You don’t have to get all touchy-feely if that’s not your style, but just being with other people can open your heart and calm your frazzled nervous system. 

One big caveat here: "connecting" obsessively via social media does NOT count nor does OD’ing on internet/TV news! Take those all in small doses and know when to "step away from the screen".

2. Practice gratitude and random acts of kindness.

"WHAT?" you say. "How can I possibly find anything to be grateful for in all this craziness?"

It’s true, you may not see an upside in that particular stressful area, but that’s not all that exists in your life right now. We human beings are complex creatures; we’re able to compartmentalize and hold several different emotions at once, so step back and take a breath

When was the last time you told your mom or child, your brother or favorite aunt that you love them? How about your oldest friend who’s just always been there? What do you appreciate about your long-term mentor or a special employee?

Let them know specifically what they mean to you and how grateful you are for their presence in your life. Those conversations are guaranteed to lift you up as well.

Then, engage in some sweet, simple acts of kindness with someone else you know, or maybe with a complete stranger. A basket of fruit or flowers on their desk; an anonymous card with a free movie pass; a "mysterious" love note with no return address.

If you’ve ever done anything like that before, you know how much it tickles you to be the giver, almost as much as it does to be on the receiving end.

3. Embody openness.

What do I mean by that? To answer, I want you first to take a moment and scan your body to determine where you typically carry stress — chances are you already know.

Are you prone to headaches or backaches? Does your stomach do somersaults or your heart do flip-flops?

Once you’ve identified your physical stress-points, sit quietly and breathe deeply and slowly into that area. If you’re able to place one or both hands on that spot, you’ll be able to feel and maybe even coax your breath there.

And if you want to take it a step farther, you can concentrate on inhaling calmness and healing, and exhaling stress and tightness. If all else fails simply place both hands on your heart, focus your attention there and keep breathing.

The HeartMath Institute has been offering research-based, practical, and reliable tools for over 25 years to help people align and connect their heart, mind, and emotions in order to reduce stress and increase well-being. So definitely check them out for more ideas.

Another way to very literally bring open-heartedness to your body is to practice some heart-opening yoga poses, and I promise you don’t have to be an advanced yogi to do these! Cow pose, upward facing dog, and modified camel pose are simple ones to try that don’t require bending into a pretzel.

4. Sing In the shower, but also (and especially) with other people.

Full disclosure, this is my favorite. I’ve been a choral singer since I was a kid and even sang in a women’s chorus at the Women’s March on NYC last January 20th. I’ve got a strong voice, but have never taken a voice lesson so I’ll never be a soloist and that’s fine.

Even so, I’ve always said that singing is my therapy of choice (well, maybe tied with yoga). Turns out that’s not so off-base. There are now lots of studies that show the positive effects of singing on the brain and heart, and specifically, group singing has been scientifically proven to lower stress, relieve anxiety, and elevate endorphins.

If the thought of singing with other people terrifies you, go ahead and just sing in the shower, or around the house, or with a tennis racket, riffing with Aretha, Springsteen, Beyonce, or whoever jazzes you.

Even solitary singing has terrific physical benefits because it’s an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in and around your heart, even when you’re sitting. So go ahead and sing your heart out!

5. Create a nurturing physical environment at work and home.

When "out there" feels chaotic and out of your control, you can still create a sense of sanctuary in your own little world.

I often work with clients who are in some kind of career or personal transition (it’s usually several at once) and one of the things we do is to brainstorm ways that they can create simple, sacred space to retreat to, a place where they can feel supported and safe to open their hearts and feel their feelings.

Think in terms of activating all of your senses. Play some quiet music, light a candle, and set up a soothing tabletop water fountain. Have a cup of chamomile tea nearby and play with some aromatherapy.

Scent is the most evocative of all of the senses because it’s directly connected to your limbic system, the seat of all of your memories and emotions. So if you’re a beach lover, have a bottle of suntan lotion handy to transplant yourself to mellower, more relaxing times!

Or if you want to experiment with essential oils, get yourself an aromatherapy lamp and try burning bergamot, ginger, or frankincense oil to supplement your gratitude practice (see #2 above). And rose, geranium, lavender and sandalwood are classic oils to open your heart center.

It’s way too easy to be thrown off-course when everything around you is in upheaval and the future seems so uncertain. It just takes a little imagination and a commitment to STOP the downward spiral before it sucks you in.

Consider which of these ideas resonates most with you so the next time you feel your shoulders drooping and your heart closing up, you can whip out one of your new tools and bring yourself back into balance.   

Deborah Roth is a Life & Career Transition Coach and Interfaith Minister who founded Spirited Living™ to help guide spirited women and men through life’s big changes with joy and ease.