Here is a stress-test scenario for you. Are you doing what you love to do? Whether at work or at home, are you engaged in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment? Simple questions, really. Unfortunately, when I ask these questions many people respond with a negative answer. Most people say they are doing what they have to do to make a living, pay the mortgage and the bills, and work toward retirement. Or they have to make dinner because the kids have to eat and if they don’t do it everyone starves. Very few people say they are following their dream and that they find satisfaction and happiness in their daily activities.
Doing something that you do not want to do is one of the major ways to increase stress in your daily life. It can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness, especially if the act is continually repeated. A good example is going to a job you hate everyday because you need to pay the bills. If you do it long enough, you may not even notice that your stress symptoms are off the charts. After a while, we just accept it as a part of life.
So here is one way to fix that and lower the stress levels. If you are doing something you do not want to do–don’t do it. Seriously, it is that simple. Think of the old joke about the man who goes to the doctor because it hurts when he raises his arm. The doctor’s answer is also simple–if it hurts, don’t do it.
Of course, there is a catch. It may be a simple fix, but no one said that simple was easy. I am not advocating that you walk away from your job and responsibilities because you don’t like going to office. What I am suggesting is that you have a choice. You may choose to do something or not, but you need to be clear on why you are doing it if you want to lower stress and increase happiness. In most cases, we do things we don’t like to do because we are not clear on what is motivating our actions.
Very often we do things because we think we should. We chase the high paying job because we should–it proves we are successful. We marry and have children because it is what we are supposed to do–everyone else does it. We need to go to work everyday to pay for the car, the house, and all the stuff we have acquired. We use that stuff to define ourselves and we need to maintain the definition.
Ultimately, motivation for our actions falls into three categories: want to, have to, or should. Not surprisingly, stress levels increase across each category. Doing something because we love it involves almost no stress at all. We do it because it is in alignment with our core values, it feels right, and it is inspiring and fulfilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum is doing something because we feel we should. It usually has something to do with self-image, but is not in alignment with values, and doesn’t sit right with us when we do it. Acting out of “should” can only increase stress levels correspondingly. In the middle is doing things because we have to. This is a means to an end or necessary to achieve something. Feeling that we have to do something increases pressure and stress. The good news is that we have the choice to find other means to that end we are looking for. We can always do something else to get where we want to go.
Once we define motivation and realize that we have a choice in all our actions, it becomes easier to change those actions–if we want to.
Another option is changing perspective. Perhaps the job isn’t perfect but we go because we love our family and want to provide for them. Working then becomes a positive action with a positive outcome. Some of the stress is automatically lessened when we view the situation in that light. The job may not be perfect, but it is better. Again, the viewpoint is our choice.
One final thought on this simple fix: not doing what you don’t want to do is not easy. Especially if society and your inner critic is telling you that you should be doing exactly that. However, it is worth the effort. Remember, choices have consequences. If you can align your actions with your core values and draw motivation from there, it doesn’t matter what others say. Doing what you love can only increase your happiness and reduce stress.
And that is a pretty delicious way to live.
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I was talking with a friend who was wanted to discuss a problem he had been facing recently. He is in the second half of his life, and has been reading that people are living longer than ever before. While many people would see this a good thing, he was concerned about it. He felt he didn’t just want to live longer. He wanted to live better. In his view, living longer was not worth doing if it just meant eroding health and loss of independence were all he had to look forward to.
When I asked him what his definition of living better was, he hesitated. It turns out he couldn’t really articulate his vision of better living, but he could tell me what it wasn’t. This isn’t an unusual situation and he certainly is not alone. He is just one of the later baby boomers who is trying to figure out which next steps are important in his future.
At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like he should have any problems. He is a successful professional who has followed his career to senior management in his organization. He has authority and influence and lives a very comfortable lifestyle. There is a stable family support network, a loving spouse, and few financial concerns. So what could possibly be wrong?
The problem is that he is not clear about what he truly wants. He has followed all the rules, created the lifestyle he thought would provide happiness, health, and security, but still feels that something is missing. He has focused so much on creating his external circumstances that he has neglected to nurture his own health and well-being. He is lacking clarity when trying to envision what a longer, better life would be.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that many of the guidelines for success in business and success in life are very similar. In order to flourish as a business, you need a crystal clear vision of the product or service you provide and its benefit to your customers. You also need a plan to guide you where you want to go. Without either of these things, chances are you won’t reach the level of success you hope to achieve.
The same holds true in life. You need to put some time and effort into figuring out what is important to you. What kind of lifestyle do you really want? How much do you need–or don’t need, as the case may be? When are you the happiest? Is health a prime concern for you? If so, are you willing to put in the work to make sure that your body serves you to its best ability as you age?
The truth of the matter is that baby boomers (and near boomers) expect a lot out of life. We are an active generation and are used to getting what we want. The idea of aging as our parents and grandparents did is simply not acceptable to us. Spending a lifetime working at a career, however satisfying, in order to retire, receive a gold watch, and recede from the world just isn’t in the cards. Many boomers don’t even consider retirement as an option–they want to remain engaged and participating in the world around them as long as possible.
After our discussion, a few things became clearer for my friend. He realized that most of his energy was spent dealing with the stress of his job (true of many boomers), which left him little time or energy to focus on himself. His health had suffered, but his energy had been so outwardly directed that he hadn’t had time to notice. He realized that he had to take as active an interest in his own health as he had been taking in the health of his organization. Once he made that decision, a new path opened and he could start planning steps to make that happen.
LIving longer should not be viewed as a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. My friend is now exploring ways to integrate exercise, healthy eating habits, and stress management into his lifestyle. Improving his health has become a concrete goal, and he is committed to success. He says he is actually looking forward to his next chapter now, not dreading it.
Once you have a clear picture of what you would like to accomplish, the chances of achievement become much greater. Gaining clarity is not always easy–it can take a long time. Sometimes we try too hard to figure out what we want. In many cases it is simpler than we think. In the case of my friend, improving his health was a key to improving his enjoyment and quality of life. A very basic idea, but one that many people overlook.
One thing is pretty clear. Without clarity, it’s hard to get where you would like to go. It’s simple in concept but can be very difficult in practice.
However, if you make the effort it can yield amazing rewards.
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Sometimes when we are going through difficult times, we can feel very isolated. It seems that we experience some problems alone, that know no one would really understand our situation. Rather than reach out for help, whether it is for advise, an ear or just an understanding shoulder, we decide to go it alone and work things out by ourselves. And while the strong silent type may be a good thing in the movies, it is almost always a disaster for well being.
One of the ways to avoid stress during difficult times is to turn to a community. It can be a community of one–your partner, your spouse, a best friend. It can be a community of several–colleagues, friends, or family. With support, it is easier to face any situation especially when you realize you are not alone. Sometimes, however, reaching out for help can be difficult. Just talking about problems can look like a sign of weakness, and in today’s competitive world, weakness is not a characteristic we want to share with others.
One of the ways some people protect themselves during stressful periods is by being judgmental. It can be a judgment of the self, but usually it is a judgment about others in the situation. We may decide that someone is not working hard enough, that they are lazy. Possibly they don’t have the self-control needed to accomplish a task at work. Whatever it may be, when we decide that someone is a certain way, it is a judgment.
And nine times out of ten, that judgment may be incorrect, but it makes us feel better. Judgment is really a defensive behavior. Oftentimes, our judgments are made without any real information about the other person. We may think someone is lazy, not doing their part at work. We don’t know that they have spent the week caring for a chronically ill parent or child. So many times it is easier just to make the judgment rather than make the effort to discover what might be affecting someone else. It can also prevent us from examining how we feel about ourselves in certain situations. After all, we often see in others the characteristics that frighten us most about ourselves.
The one thing judgmental behavior is certain to do is cut us off from others. By its very nature, judgmental behavior is divisive. It is very difficult to feel connected when you are focusing on differences rather than similarities. And when we focus on the differences, we tend to keep people at arm’s length. This increases any isolation we may be feeling, and thus a cycle of judgment and isolation continues to deepen.
It is not until we make a conscious decision to alter judgmental behavior that we will be able to break the cycle and feel less disconnected from others.
In today’s society, it seems that one of the hardest things we can do is to have compassion for others. The idea is at the core of most of the world’s social and religious ideologies, but practicing the concept on a daily basis can sometimes feel like an impossible task. After all, the jerk that just cut you off and took your parking place has made you late for a meeting. How, or more importantly why, should you feel compassion for him? Isn’t anger and irritation( not to mention possible hand gestures) a more appropriate response?
Here’s the deal. Getting angry or irritated is just going to raise your stress levels. True, he may have made you late, but you have no idea what happened to him before your paths connected. It may not seem like a very assertive response, the kind that is highly regarded today. A healthier response, however, would be to wish him well and move on. Not only is it not assertive, it is not easy. But is getting angry, judging him, and creating a divide between you a better use of energy? My guess on that would be no. A better use of energy would be finding a new parking space and getting to the meeting with as little drama as possible. The second option will leave you less stressed and more effective when you do arrive.
Practicing compassion is a way to feel more connected to the world around us rather than isolating ourselves with judgments. Once we finally understand and believe that we are all in this together, tough times can get easier. Acute situations are easier to accept, because we aren’t wasting energy looking for somewhere or someone to place blame. New ways to deal with episodic or chronic stress might become apparent. Compassion allows us to look at all the players and the situation in a non-judgmental way. When we can do that, we can expend energy looking for solutions to issues and problems. Or better yet, acting with compassion can prevent problems from arising in the first place.
And that is truly a much more positive use of time and personal resources.
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It is no surprise that when asked to name the one thing they would most like to change in their workplace, employees almost always put stress levels at the top of the list. What with downsizing, rightsizing, and endless budget cuts, the mantra for so many companies these days is “do more with less”. One of the phrases I often heard in management meetings during my corporate time was “suck it up and get over it.” Unfortunately, this places an added burden on employees that remain after layoffs which only increases individual stress levels. With so much economic uncertainty, not only in the workplace but at home as well, it is no small wonder that most employees are looking for ways to minimize the effects of stress from their jobs.
The interesting thing is that everyone has a different idea of what stress is. What bothers one person may not affect another at all. Staff members at the Mayo Clinic define stress as a situation”when the demands placed upon a person exceed his or her capabilities.” It is actually a good definition of stress since it place the responsibility on both the situation and the individual, not just the individual as do so many other definitions. Reactions to stress are connected to a myriad of factors. What bothers someone one day may not be an issue the next. Lack of sleep, hunger, the amount of exercise in a day–these are just a few things that can play a part in a person’s reaction to stress.
The effects of stress are a problem not only for the employee, but the organization as well. It is estimated that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related conditions. If stress levels are not addressed, chronic health conditions can develop such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Frequent colds are not uncommon for people suffering from chronic stress. This all plays into a person’s productivity at work, increasing absenteeism and decreasing productivity. These chronic health conditions have a direct impact on the healthcare costs of an organization and thus the overall profitability of that organization is reduced. Therefore it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest to address the stress levels in the workplace and explore ways to minimize the harmful effects of those conditions.
One of the most important things we can do is to set healthy personal boundaries. With all the technology flooding the market, we can no longer leave the office at the office. People are now expected to be available 24/7, especially when the boss seems to live and breathe for their blackberry or iPhone. Instead of making life easier, the information age has actually had the opposite effect. We expect results more quickly and judge ourselves and others if there is a lag time in response to an email or voice mail, even during the weekend. The new term for this is cerebral burnout, and is a very real condition.
Personal boundaries are one way to combat the possibility of cerebral burnout. In today’s world it may not be realistic to think that not responding to emails or texts after the traditional end of the workday is acceptable. But you can set a boundary as to when you will stop responding. Let colleagues know that you put your phone away at 8:00 pm and don’t look at again until you start work the next day. Starting work may be at the breakfast table and not when you hit the office, but at least your coworkers or bosses will have a clear idea of when they will hear from you. Not only does this allow you to have downtime without guilt, but you can also begin to ween yourself off electronic devices in the evenings which will have a positive impact on the quality of sleep. Better sleep patterns contributes to a stronger ability to combat stress, so this is really a two-for-one win.
Another great way to combat stress is to begin a program of mental training. Used by athletes to focus on performance, mental training is a type of meditation. Before you start each day, give yourself five or ten minutes and turn your attention to your breathing. Think only of your breath as you inhale and exhale. This will calm the mind, and slow down all that information zinging back and forth in your brain. When your brain is quieter, it becomes easier to focus during the day, and the result is greater productivity. Greater productivity naturally means less stress.
My favorite stress release is exercise. Thirty minutes of cardio on a daily basis will have an unbelievable impact on the ability to cope in stressful situations. Other types of exercise such as yoga or tai chi show equally impressive results. The benefits of exercise include improved brain function, neuron growth, the release of beta-endorphins, and lower muscle tension. It can also increase weight loss, a fact that most people would look at as the number one health benefit.
Speaking of lowering muscle tension–regularly scheduled massages can play a huge role in stress management. Although many people still consider massage to be a luxury, muscle tension is perhaps the number one symptom of stress. In addition to being painful, it can even compromise organ function over time. Regular massage counteracts the effects of stress by decreasing muscle tension and increasing lymphatic drainage. This helps to remove toxins from the body and allows better functionality. Aside from that, a massage just feels good. One note of caution–do not order a deep tissue massage if you are going for your first experience. Although it may sound great, your muscles may not appreciate that much manipulation. Try a swedish massage or a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage for your first few treatments.
Make time to socialize–in person. Social support is crucial in stressful situations, but not if the only support you receive is virtual. Face time ( and not on an iPhone) can help to put things in perspective and give the support you need to get through rough times. It is so easy to let social connections slide when you are feeling overwhelmed, but that is precisely when real friendship matters the most. So make it a point to get together with friends on a regular basis. Schedule lunches, potlucks, or just a coffee date. Better yet, make it a celebration and visit a spa with friends for an afternoon of bonding and massage. Stress levels won’t stand a chance!
These are just five ways to combat stress. When we think of stress, most of us focus on the workplace, but it is important to remember that stress can occur anywhere. I know retirees with no financial worries who are more stressed-out than my executive friends. It really is a matter of how you perceive situations and how your body reacts to them. Of course, you can’t reduce stress levels without trying to increase levels of overall well being, but focusing on stress reduction is a good step in the right direction.
So what do you do to fight stress in the workplace or home front? I would love to hear the unique ways people have found to help them cope with our increasingly demanding world.
Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you focus on your health and reduce your own stress levels? Click here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.
I had lunch last week with a friend from what I affectionately refer to as my old life, more commonly known as the corporate world. Not only is she a friend, but she consistently reads my blog. At one point she mentioned that my posts were full of positive energy and that it must be so nice to have such a positive lifestyle. While I was flattered by her comments, I was also amused that she thought I had found the secret to banishing all things negative from my life. It’s a great idea, and if anyone knows how to do that, I would love to hear it.
The truth is, being positive does not eliminate bad things from happening in life. Bad things happen, and bad situations exist in everyone’s life at one time or another. The good news is that these things don’t have to make you negative or unhappy. The fact is, sometimes life just sucks, but how you decide to react to that is your responsibility. And once you make the connection, an amazing thing can happen. Being responsible for your actions and your reactions creates a real sense of empowerment. And empowerment leads to choice. Choice leads to growth. Growth leads to positivity.
For example, consider being “stuck” in a job you hate. Everyday it takes all your energy just to get up and get to work. That is a very debilitating environment, and it would be very easy to begin to see yourself as a victim of a bad situation. However, once you accept that you chose the job, and more importantly that you choose to continue in the job, you become responsible for the situation. That gives you control of the situation, and suddenly the power to make a change does not seem that far out of reach. It is a generally accepted fact that people who feel in control or empowered tend to be more positive, and that those who are more positive are more likely to focus on personal development and growth.
In addition to accepting responsibility, there is another sure-fire way achieve a positive outlook when faced with life’s challenges. So often we find ourselves reacting to emotional triggers in difficult situations. That is more or less a natural reaction–a knee jerk response caused by a previous scenario or imagined danger. Immediate reaction tends to cloud judgement. It is so easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, but in doing so we lose perspective and our choices may not have the most benefit for all involved.
Acting mindfully is one way to choose a more positive reaction to a situation. Instead of reacting immediately to a situation, take a breath and simply observe what is going on without engaging in it. This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, but often it will slow us down enough so that we can choose a reaction that is more compassionate and in keeping with our core values. When our choices coincide with the values we hold as important, it is much easier to remain positive. And sometimes, when the actions themselves we choose are difficult, knowing that we are not acting against our own beliefs makes those choices a little easier.
Finally, one other way to maintain a positive outlook is to look for lessons. When you stop to observe a situation, also think about what you can learn from it. We can learn something from all events–good or bad. Whether we choose to take advantage of that is up to us. But if we do open ourselves to the concept that we can learn from all events, we are bound to enrich ourselves. And that enrichment leads to change, which leads to growth. And growth can’t help but foster a positive outlook.
So if you think that you must have an easy life to have a positive attitude, think again. Having a strife-free life does not guarantee happiness, even if such a thing were possible. Rather, how we deal with adversity and setbacks plays a major role in determining our level of positivity. Taking responsibility , observing before engaging, and learning from every opportunity are all ways to build on a positive attitude. And that is something we can happily share with the world.
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“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”–Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1994
Here’s a little quiz. How often during the workday do you find yourself putting out fires and moving in two hundred directions at once? Have you ever found yourself thinking that you do many things during the day but feel that you do very few of them well? If you answer yes to either of these questions you can consider yourself a functioning member of the modern workforce. It seems that multitasking is here to stay. It is the only way we can possibly keep up with increasing productivity demands in an environment plagued by diminishing resources.
Studies show that our minds wander away from the task at hand about 49 percent of the time. And that is without any additional prompting or stimulus. Throw in digital technology–texting, face time, email–and it seems that focusing on what we feel is important is almost a lost cause. We have been conditioned to respond to a smartphone alert almost like a Pavlovian dog. It is not at all unusual to see someone stop during a conversation to check a text or email. Couple this with the fact that a whole generation has grown up with TV remote surfing syndrome, and it is not surprising that staying focused on one subject for a given period of time seems almost impossible.
Many people regard multitasking as the ultimate productivity tool. The number of items crossed off a list in the shortest period of time indicates your effectiveness at work. However, findings from Basex, a New York based business research firm tend to disprove this concept. Data from their studies shows that multitasking costs the US economy an average of $997 billion in lost productivity and a minimum of 28 million hours annually. In a time when people are asked to do more with less, it would seem that multitasking has finally become counterproductive.
So how can you, and the company you work for, possibly hope to combat this loss of productivity? Is there a way to create an increased productivity flow with stronger personal interactions along with a decreased error ratio?
Yes, there is. More and more forward-thinking companies are introducing mindfulness training programs into their daily operations. The result? More rational decision-making and problem-solving, not to mention a stronger sense of equilibrium no matter how many fires are burning around you. Companies such as General Mills, Apple, Google, and AstraZenenca, to name a few, have a successfully incorporated mindfulness practices into their workforces. Apple even has meditation rooms where employees can regain focus during difficult periods.
There is a bias against mindfulness in many circles. Often it is thought of as some esoteric type of Eastern religion that couldn’t possibly mix with a modern corporate culture. Mindfulness is most often associated with meditation, which when misunderstood can seem like a selfish waste of time. However, if meditation is introduced not just as a mindfulness technique, but a secular exercise in concentration, there is more often a willingness to explore the possible benefits in corporate cultures. After all, who wouldn’t want to experience increased concentration, stronger relationships, enhanced decision-making abilities, and a more positive work environment?
One way to bring mindfulness to the office environment is take a few moments each day and focus inward. Begin by sitting comfortably and focus on your breath. Breath in for a count three and out for a count of five. Chances are your mind will immediately rebel and start throwing around any thoughts it can to distract you. The mind does not like to be challenged or harnessed, so that is perfectly normal. Simply acknowledge the thoughts as they appear, then let them float away. Do not focus on them, but at the same time, don’t try to pretend that they don’t exist. Continually let your focus come back to your breath, breathing in for three and out for five. Continue the practice for five minutes in the beginning, or even three minutes. Meditation is not as easy as it sounds, but you will be able to extend your practice as you become more comfortable with it. If you feel that it sounds like a waste of time, just remember that Apple, Inc. allows each employee thirty minutes a day for meditation, with on-site classes offered as well. I think we can all agree that Apple doesn’t appear to be suffering from a decreased level of productivity.
The goal is to be present in each moment throughout the day. To be aware of what you are doing at the time you are doing it. It sounds so simple, but keep in mind that we lose focus about 49% of the time. That is when mistakes and faulty decisions are more likely to be made. There are physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits to mindfulness practices in addition to improved best-business practices. As companies become more concerned with the overall well-being of their employees, it seems only natural that mindfulness practices will become accepted as the norm if an organization truly wants to flourish.
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I don’t think anyone would disagree that we are in the midst of some very difficult times. I know every generation has said that, and I’m sure that every time it was true. But with our technological advances, and the flattening of the global playing field, it is more difficult for us to escape, even for a moment, than past generations. In this information age, we know immediately when a crisis across the globe erupts, and more importantly, we are told how it could adversely affect our daily lives. These days it is even tough to take a break and browse Facebook without the latest political headlines jumping off our home pages.
Mix that all up with our own personal dramas, and I think you have the setting for the perfect storm.
We are all trying to work through issues. Maybe it’s a job loss, or the fear of a job loss. Possibly it’s a divorce, or the stress of kids starting school. Maybe it’s teenagers spiraling out of control and turning your life into a Movie of the Week you never wanted to see. Perhaps you have even gotten to where you wanted to be–only to find out it isn’t what you expected. Whatever it may be, one thing is certain. If you keep plugging away 24/7 without a break, you are going to cave in at some point.
I like to think we all want to live the best life possible. That definition is different for each person, but certainly underlying concepts remain constant. One of those is self-care. As a wellness coach, I find it to be one of the most important tools in the toolbox. Without it, there is no way we can stay at the top of our game for any extended period of time.
Here is a coaching tip, along with a bit of common sense. If you want to be able to give to those around you, you have to be able to give to yourself. That goes for work life as well as personal life. Many of us have been raised to be persistent, keep up the fight. We can rest when everything is over. I know a lot of people who say they will reward themselves after they have reached a goal. Here’s the deal–it’s a lot easier to reach that goal when you reward yourself along the way.
A lot of people are afraid to take time for themselves for the very simple reason they feel they don’t deserve it. It goes back to the ingrained concept of not getting a reward until the task is completed. But we all deserve to take care of ourselves. And there are lots of ways to do it. My mother used to say she loved ironing. It gave her the time to stay in one place (no easy feat with four kids), and think without being disturbed. It was a win/win situation for her. She got something off her list, and didn’t have to feel guilty about snatching a half an hour or so to allow her mind to wander. Ironing wasn’t really a chore for her, it was her time to reflect on her day and renew herself for the rest of the day ahead.
There are lots of ways to practice self-care. The important thing is to use it as a time to relax and renew. Sometimes it can be indulgent, like massages and spa treatments. That sounds hedonistic, but there is a wealth of information on the benefits of massage. One of the best things you can do to increase overall well-being is to schedule regular massages.
Some people find gardening to be therapeutic. For some it isn’t time in a garden, but a hike in nature that is the perfect self-care prescription. Maybe it’s a good run, or a daily cardio workout. The key is that whatever method you chose, it needs to work for you, and it needs to take you outside of yourself for a while. I find that my morning stint on the elliptical trainer is a great time to reflect and set intentions for the day ahead. Plus I burn calories and lower cholesterol, so it’s a winning situation all around.
The important thing is to take the time for yourself. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive–sometimes that would cause more harm than good. But it does need to be something that you do for you–not anyone else. When was the last time you read a book on a Sunday afternoon, even if the laundry still needed to be done or the car needed to be washed? Sometimes there is a bigger task at hand–giving yourself permission to take a break.
When the world around us becomes more challenging, the commitment to care for ourselves becomes even more important. Give yourself the time to relax and renew both mentally and physically. Treat yourself tenderly, and you will be surprised at how much more you can put into– and get out of– your daily life.
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