Mind games…three ways to de-stress and relax…


I use three mind tricks to try to ward off stress and relax when things go a little wacky in my life.

This last few weeks, there’s been a lot going on. For me, part of the problem is the weather. Winter has taken its toll on me (thankfully we’ve not had much snow), but the cold, the dark, the dreariness…all of it plays a part on my unwillingness to get off the couch! I’m starting to feel a little Spring in the air and a great desire to jump in my car and hit the road! I look forward to the day when I can bring out the patio furniture…spend a little time with a glass of wine on my back deck…get rid of the winter coat and clunky boots.

But, it’s not just weather. My head hasn’t felt completely screwed on for the last little bit. Between personal relationships, a busy schedule with the kids and trying to juggle everything on my own…fearful I’m about to drop the ball on something incredibly important…not being able to get a good night’s sleep…all of it is wreaking havoc on my stress level and adding up to a bit of chaos in my otherwise organized head.

AND, from the buzz I hear out there…I’m not the only one. March has that way of making us all a little uneasy I guess…desperate for Spring to arrive so we can shake out the Winter blues!

I’ve mentioned before that in my early twenties, I dealt with panic attacks. At the time, I could have up to 6 or 8 each day and things got so bad, I ended up needing medication to gain back control. Through a six month period, I had many visits with a counsellor to monitor the medications and alleviate some fears that had taken over. During those sessions, I learned a number of tricks to help de-stress…tricks that I still use to this day.

From time to time in everyday conversations and heart-to-hearts…someone mentions they’ve had a panic attack or are feeling stressed. I’m always a little bit embarrassed about these little mind tricks I keep in my back pocket and yet, they help me so much that despite my discomfort (and don’t ask me why I feel embarrassed about it but I do), I share my tricks and hope that in sharing, it might help. Last week, I shared them with THREE different people which is how I know I’m not the only one feeling under pressure these days! So, I thought I’d share my mind-trickery with my readers as well…and who knows, maybe I can help someone going through a rough patch.

I’ve named these exercises the Full Body Kegel, Stewiacke Tree and Pinocchio Strings. I’m sure they have actual professional names as I was originally taught them by a professional…and I’m sure over the 25 years or so I’ve changed them quite a bit from what I was first taught…but here’s what works for me…

1. Full Body Kegel

There are times that I’m so uptight I can feel every single muscle from head to toe. Things are so knotted up, that I’m not quite sure how to start to unwind. It’s often when I’ve spent far too long leaning over a computer screen and can’t for the life of me figure out how to un-slump myself…or, when I’ve stood on my feet all day cooking and cleaning…and a hot bath with bubbles just isn’t cutting it.

Starting with your toes, we’re going to tighten everything up from bottom to top and then release the pressure in reverse order.

I usually start with closing my eyes though I admit, this is the part that always freaks me out a little! I can recall in the doctor’s office, my doctor asking me to close my eyes and I’d spend most of the time wondering what I looked like to my doctor and wanting to peek to see if she was looking at me rather than actually trying to concentrate on the exercise! Now, I have no problem closing my eyes…mostly, so I don’t see all of the mess and dust around the house that needs my attention. (Interesting fact: apparently when you’re in “chaos mode”, ie, completely stressed out and unable to get a grip…the housework is one of the first things to get out of control!!)

OK…once your eyes are closed and you’re comfortable…think of your toes (not the fact that you need a pedicure, though that might help de-stress a bit as well!) Back to the toes…tighten them up…curl them and count to three while keeping them tight…then move to your ankles. Tighten your ankles and count to three then move to your calves…then knees…then hips…keep tightening as you move your way up your body, counting slowly to three between each movement and don’t release anything. Tighten your bum! Your belly. Your chest…your spine to your shoulders, make your way down your arms, hands…fingers. Tighten your neck. Your ears. Your cheeks. Eyes. Head. From the tip of your toes to the top of your head, every single bit of you should be completely tight. Now, make your way back down slowly. Release your scalp…your eyes and cheeks. Release your ears…your neck…your fingers, hands and arms. Release your shoulders, chest, belly. Release your bum! Your hips. Your thighs, knees, calves…ankles…toes.

For me, often I have no idea how tight I’m holding my body until I make everything tight…and then let it all go. Honestly, I think I’ve done this exercise every Christmas Day for as long as I can remember and not because of the holiday stress, but because my body is so sore from shopping and wrapping and cooking that by the time I sit down, my muscles are killing me! This helps me normalize my muscles so I can start to relax.

Also, why did I name it the Full-Body-Kegel? Well, it’s like a Kegel, sort of, except that it’s head to toe. Also, for the record, while I know a great many people who Kegel at traffic lights…I don’t recommend you do this one while driving.

Mostly, because your eyes are closed!!!

2. Stewiacke Tree

There’s a tree that stands alone in a field on the side of Highway 102 in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia. I’ve driven past it hundreds of times in all sorts of weather and am oddly mesmerized by it. When I was young, it was always the beacon that let me know we were almost home. As I got older, the vision of that lone tree took on a bit of a different meaning and continues to draw me in each time I pass…leaving me reflecting on life as I head down the highway.

At the worst of my panic attacks, I learned about “grounding” myself…”rooting” myself to the place where I stood. When working on this exercise, it was that Stewiacke Tree that came to mind, hence the name.

This exercise, though hardest and weirdest to explain, works best for me at the beginning of a panic attack when I need to find my footing and stop things from spinning…when I need to roll with the panic instead of fighting it. Thankfully, I don’t have to use it very often anymore but for me, if I catch it early enough, it can all but stop a panic attack in its tracks…or tame it to a dull roar. If I’m not using it to stop a panic attack, it’s a nice de-stressor to calm things down.

Again, get comfy and close your eyes…I’m usually sitting for this and visualizing everything but I think the “real” exercise has you standing and actually turning yourself into a tree! (Again, in the doctor’s office, this made me extremely uncomfortable but in time, I realized that it actually worked.) So, it’s up to you if you want to stand and turn yourself into a tree…but I’ll be over here on the couch…well, unless it’s to ward off a panic attack in which case, I could be absolutely anywhere! I’ve done this exercise on an elevator, on a roller coaster, in a dentist’s chair, in the middle of an exam and in court to name a few!!!

Alright, back to the couch…picture yourself in a field with nothing around you whatsoever…stand firm on the ground…your bare feet completely connecting with the dirt around you. Imagine your feet melting into the ground, feel the mud and dirt moving and separating as your feet seep into it. Watch your feet take root as the roots grow into the ground and spread out in every direction. Connect with the earth…plant yourself where you are…let the roots firmly hold you in place.

And for me…that’s usually where this exercise stops. Mostly, I need to feel rooted into place and gain control of the spinning that a panic attack can bring on. However, if you’re using the exercise to relax…I’ll continue.

Once rooted…imagine your legs and hips as the trunk of the tree…strong. Unmoving. Solid. With your feet firmly planted on the ground and your legs stiff, let your upper body move. Sway your body back and forth letting the breeze move you. The sun warm you. Move into a brisker pace as the wind picks up and dies back down moving your arms and body along with it. Sway for ten seconds quickly then ten slowly and more peacefully.

Honestly, the whole upper body thing doesn’t work for me because I think this exercise was originally created for stage actors and I can imagine them all swaying and moving and turning themselves into trees and it hits me more funny than relaxing. But the roots part…that works for me!

2. Pinocchio Strings

There are more than enough times that I feel like a puppet under someone else’s control. This Pinocchio exercise helps me gain a little control back when I feel like someone else is holding it all.

Essentially, I close my eyes and imagine I’m a puppet on a string. By picking up an imaginary string that’s attached to a limb, I can move the limb all over the place (even imaginary whacking myself in the head if that’s what I really need!) Picking up limbs and letting them drop…moving them around…somehow imagining all of the string movement allows me to get things back in control again. If I take control, no one else can control me. Don’t just imagine moving your arms…move your legs as well. Heck, I’ve visualized myself completely tangled up and then have gone ahead and unknotted myself…now that’s visualization talent!

When to Call a Counsellor

The Full Body Kegel, Stewiacke Tree and Pinocchio Strings have helped me de-stress quite a few times since I first learned them in my twenties. But also, a good nights sleep, finding time for myself, exercise, eating properly, time with friends, time alone, a big ol’ tear-jerker of a movie, a bubble bath, a hot cup of tea, music, a good book, a balanced schedule and a sit down meal with the kids to de-brief about our week and spend a little time catching up…they all help as well. When all else fails…I’ve a counsellor I can count on to talk things through who is kind enough to greet me after a lengthy time away with a “well, look what the cat dragged in” and a warm embrace.

This weekend, I spent it mostly in pyjamas next to my pup. I cleaned the house (though there’s much left to be done), I watched multiple hours of Netflix and I managed to get a few good night’s sleep in a row. Spring is in the air. I’m ready to wash the car, clean up the garbage, bring out the patio furniture and put away the winter clothes. I’ve exciting projects on the go and some fabulous events to look forward to.

Things are going to be fine. I know that, because when I close my eyes, I can see it so clear.


About the photo: For my 40th Birthday, my photographer friend, Lara Debruyn, gifted me with this beautiful framed photograph of the Stewiacke Tree. From my understanding, Lara had her family stop not once, but on TWO different occasions to try to get the shot she was looking for…climbing over brush and mud to get to the spot she needed to take the photo. It is one of my favourite possessions.