A class, meditation, essential oils — follow a mom’s quest to find peace and tranquility during a busy week of work and family.
By Laura Jean Whitcomb
“Stress has become a part of everyday life,” says Allison DeStefano. “It has become a badge of honor to be stressed…but, at the same time, it’s killing us. It increases your heart rate, increases your blood pressure, and weakens your immune system.”
Ouch. I’m in a conference room with 25 other folks for a free seminar on the topic of “Alleviating Stress & Anxiety Naturally” hosted by the Concord Food Co-op of New London, N.H. There was a waiting list for the class, so it seems that I’m not the only one that would like to remove my badge. DeStefano — a certified integrative nutrition health coach who has her own practice and works at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. — is going to help us identify oncoming stressors and how to avoid them, how to combat and reduce stressors you experience (sometimes there is just no avoidance), and how to push past them in the future.
The co-op staff is serving tea and dark chocolate, so that’s a good start. DeStefano has us close our eyes for a few deep breaths. It’s hard to “tame my monkey mind” — a phrase DeStefano uses to describe how our thoughts jump all over the place — but eventually I’m able to clear my head so I can focus on the class.
The key to alleviating stress, it seems, is organization. First, identify your triggers. For example, trying to get two kids out the door in the morning always ends in a scream fest and some crying (sometimes you). You can organize your environment to make it easier: give each kid their own space for backpacks, boots and coats in the front hall. You can make a schedule; tell the kids to pack backpacks the night before and set the alarm for 6 a.m. for yourself. Second, cut yourself some slack. “Give yourself permission to feel the way you do, then work to change it,” says DeStefano.
If mornings are still your cross to bear (face it, the kids are not and may never be morning people), then do things to help your state of mind. DeStefano suggests grounding exercises, like listing animals or saying the alphabet backwards. Maybe clench and release your fists (but behind your back so no one thinks you are going to punch them). Then, once the situation has passed, do other things to release the tension from your body: make sure you get enough sleep, take a walk, stay hydrated, and eat foods that help you relieve stress: dark chocolate, walnuts, cashews, berries, garlic, oranges and avocado, to name a few. And, to keep yourself on track, add relaxation to your calendar. “Schedule ‘me time’ just as you would any appointment,” she says. “You need to take care of yourself before you can care for anyone else.”
I like the idea of me time. I set up my “stress reduction” schedule. The Yoga Connection in Grantham, N.H., offers free meditation space on Fridays from 5 to 5:45 p.m. Janice Vien, an RN who has been practicing yoga since 1982 and teaching since 1989, built her yoga studio on Route 10 two years ago. It has heated pine floors, and big, bright windows with views of the rolling hills of Grantham. She opens the doors to her studio two days a week for meditation. “I offer free meditation as a community service. Not everybody can afford classes and everybody can learn to meditate,” Vien says.
The studio offers mats and blankets (as well as chairs and other yoga props), but I have my own. Four other ladies are there, and we all set up in different positions: some lying on their backs, some sitting up, some using props, some not. A chime starts the evening session of sitting together in silence.
Meditation, a practice that helps make your mind calm and peaceful, is not easy. I think about the timing of the class; 5 p.m. is usually when I get dinner started. The kids had a snack, but I’m not sure if my husband planned on cooking. Why didn’t I start the slow cooker this morning? I remember my yoga teacher telling me that it is okay to have these thoughts — acknowledge them and let them go.
Someone is snoring. How can she be sleeping? I realize that my shoulders are creeping up to my ears, a sure sign of stress. I drop my shoulders and try to relax them. I shift slightly, quietly, so I don’t disturb anyone else. After a few minutes my shoulders are back up to my chin, so I start the process over again. Now my back hurts. Can I bend my knees to release some of the pressure? I do silently, but now notice that my shoulders hurt in a different place.
Never mind the complaints of your body, I tell myself, focus on your breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Is anyone else talking to herself like I am? Stop, breathe. Nose, mouth, nose, mouth, deep into the bowl of my belly. I hear the hum of the traffic on Interstate 89. I open my eyes. The pink of the sunset is glowing through the windows. I listen to the cars with my eyes open. My mind is quiet. I close my eyes, and the chime rings to send the session.
I am surprised that 45 minutes went by so quickly. I enjoyed the silence — something I don’t have at home — but I’m wondering if a guided meditation, where a leader walks participants through the meditation practice with his voice, might be better for me? Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, N.H., offers a session on Monday evenings, so I add that day and time to my stress reduction schedule. We’re lucky here in the Upper Valley: you can find a meditation drop-in every day of the week: Wednesday night at the Upper Valley Zen Center in White River Junction, Vt.; Tuesday night at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover, N.H., with the Valley Insight Meditation Society; and Thursday night at the Women’s Resource Health Center on the green in Lebanon, N.H., to name a few.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly crabby, I light a candle. It’s not news that scents can help you shift your moods or emotions; there’s a science behind why smells make you feel a certain way and an entire industry built around it: aromatherapy. In her talk, DeStefano mentions essential oils — biologically active volatile compounds of flowers and plants in a highly concentrated form — as one way support physical health and mental well being.
“Lavender oil is my immediate go-to for stress; I dab it on my wrists, use it in my baths, and breathe it in throughout the day when I need something to decompress,” she says. “It is also important to pause and truly breathe deeply to experience the effects. Applying the oil is a reminder for me to slow down a moment, take a few deep breaths, center myself, and continue on with my day.” In addition to lavender, DeStefano also recommends rose, chamomile, lemon, cinnamon and eucalyptus.
With 50 million smell receptors inside the nasal cavity connected to the brain’s limbic system, an area responsible for emotions, it’s not surprising to see why the scent of my candle (vanilla is soothing) helps ease my irritability. I take a trip to the natural food store to see what might be available, and essential oil blends abound. I can buy one with bergamot, jasmine, frankincense and rose to help me unwind, or one with sunflower, lemon, grapefruit and vetiver to give me energy. A few dabs on my wrists and I do feel a bit better. DeStefano suggests using essential oils in a diffuser, adding a few drops to a shower or bath, or “wafting the scent to the nose instead of breathing in straight from the bottle.” My bottle of essential oil is now in my purse and, if the kids are in a bad mood when I pick them up after school, I wave it around the car. I’ll let you know if it works.
Meditations are free at some locations, a small fee at others. Check before you drop in.
Laura Jean Whitcomb, wife and mother of two, wrote this article while basking in the light of her Himalayan salt lamp.