One of the best gifts we can give ourselves, our families, and the world around us is learning to embrace compassion.

We all have times when we’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and overcommitted. Especially now, with so much need in the world calling to us from social media, the news, and pressing mid-term elections, it’s easy to find ourselves feeling this way. 

Most of us heed this call by pushing on and ignoring the signals from our bodies that stress is detrimentally mounting, from our minds that systems have gone haywire, and from our breath that we can barely catch. Though well intentioned, when we work this way, we end up working against ourselves and ultimately against those we most want to serve.

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So what can we do when there’s much to be done and seemingly little time to do it? Begin with an acknowledgement that in order to serve the greater good to the best of your ability, a compassionate approach to living and being is the sustainable way to go. Instead of pushing yourself to do more the next time you notice overwhelm set in, allow a bit of space to breathe, to move, to reflect on what you need before you act.

The easiest way to prevent overwhelm leading to breakdowns like colds, flu, and other forms of illness is to get in the habit of checking in with yourself. You have built in mechanisms that let you know when stress is mounting; you’ve just been programmed to ignore them. Learning to listen to the wisdom of your body, your mind, and your breath is key to cultivating a compassionate way of living. 

Body

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Your body gives you signals all day long about what it needs. Most of us have been conditioned to ignore those signals and don’t notice them until we’re sick or injured. Letting chronic stress and tension accumulate in your neck, jaw, low back or anywhere in your body is detrimental to your health and ability to function optimally. The good news is that you can avoid body breakdown by learning to listen to your body and releasing physical stress before it’s problematic.

Get in the habit of releasing tension multiple times a day. If you don’t know how, just stand and shake–move your head, arms, hands, hips, legs and feet in any way that’s not ordinary for you. Ask your body what needs to be released, and then move in the opposite direction of your typical pattern. If you sit most of the day, take standing breaks. If you lean forward over a computer screen, put your hands on your back and arch your chest upward. For help with knowing how to prevent stress from accumulating in a specific area of your body, check out my video series, designed to give you three to five minute movement breaks. 

Mind: 

Notice where your thought energy is going. Learn to let go of the focus on littleness and focus instead on the magnitude of your inner brilliance. The more you focus on your irritation with what’s wrong with the way things are, how someone else is behaving, or what’s not getting done on your to-do list, the less energy you have to put into the best of what you have to offer. When you notice that your mental chatter is negative, or when you hear negativity reflected in the world around you, receive that information as a clue that something internal needs to shift. Allow yourself to plant seeds of self-compassion in your own mind with statements like, “I’m doing the best that I can in this moment, or, “I have all I need to shine brightly, live peacefully.” Extend that same compassion towards others by wishing that they be filled with loving-kindness, peace, and happiness. Try a morning ritual where you write down and repeat a positive affirmation, then use it throughout the day. 

Breath

Breathing affects every system in our body and is the only part of the autonomic nervous system that can be controlled at will. Research shows a direct connection between breathing patterns and emotions. When we take time to pause and breathe deeply and slowly, we feel better. Blood flow increases, and all of our cells receive more oxygen, more energy.  Breathing is something that you do anyway, but when you’re stressed and not paying attention, you’re likely not making the most of your breath. Start to pay attention; notice if your breath is moving deep into your belly. When it’s not, simply relax your jaw, breathe in through your nose, and feel breath move deeper. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, and feel stress dissipate. Spend just two minutes focusing on your breath in this way, and notice how it settles your mind and helps you release tension in your body. Use this three part breath practice to help you learn how to breathe deeply. 

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Often it doesn’t take more than a pause to notice stress mounting. Cultivate a habit of checking in with yourself hourly. Ask yourself what you need right now to feel good in your body, calm in your mind, steady with your breath. When you learn to regularly check in like this–you find a new way of living. Feeling good in your body, calm in your mind, and steady in your breath IS possible as a way of living all of the time, even when you’re dealing with the hard things in life.