APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Manage Stress by Finding a State of Calm

Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Christine ShawYES, Yoga for Emotional Support

Everyone feels stress, some greater than others. In the fourth part of this podcast series, Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to yoga instructor Christine Shaw about techniques to help bring calm to your life. Learn a practice called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMF) that can help bring immediate calm and relaxation to every part of your body. Also learn the importance of affirmations and positive self-talk to change your mindset and help you stay calm and move on.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about staying calm as you move forward in your life. We have a returning guest, Ms. Christine Shaw. This is our fourth episode in a series on yoga and wellness.

[Listen to Episode 1: What You Focus on, You Find: How a Positive Mindset Guides You to Success]

[Listen to Episode 2: From Resistance to Acceptance: Reducing Stress]

[Listen to Episode 3: Techniques to Improve Your Physical and Emotional Health]

Christine is an enthusiastic innovator and entrepreneur, always looking to guide people to trust their intuition and from stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and life situations so they can thrive in their life. She has over 40 year’s of experience in the wellness and fitness industry and thousands of hours teaching yoga.

She is the owner of Liberty Yoga Studio in Newark, Delaware since 2012. Christine created YES, which stands for Yoga for Emotional Support, after experiencing pain and challenging emotional situations. When her daughter struggled with substance use disorder from the age of 12 to 19 and when she married a man who lived with the effects of unresolved childhood trauma, she turned to yoga to help navigate and relieve her own pain and stress. And it has helped her to move forward and thrive in the face of difficult life situations. Christine, welcome back to our podcast and thank you for joining me.

Christine Shaw: Thank you, Marie. So glad to be here again.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I’m very excited about your topic today because I’m interested in hearing what you have to say and I see where the theme ties in a lot to your program, the YES program, but also this is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart because I, too, come in contact with a number of people in different scenarios than you’re accustomed to, but the same issue, sometimes they feel stuck or anxious, but they know they have to move on with their life, so I’m looking forward to what you have to say on how they can move from point A to point B.

Christine Shaw: Yes, that’s a topic that’s very near and dear to me as well. That’s an unfamiliar feeling, being calm, and they go around in just an anxious state, whether they’re anxious about what’s coming up that day, or what’s happened in the past. Or how are they going to make it through the next day? I communicate with people all the time that come to the YES class that are dealing with such a variety of emotions and life situations and they’ve literally said, “I don’t know how I can carry on.”

And so I offer practices to help them, one step at a time, notice how they’re feeling, not only within their body, but each moment, moment to moment, and then kind of put on the brakes a little bit, slow things down, get into the present moment, and see what the feeling even of calm looks like, feels like. Then once you have experience after experience of feeling calm, then you can access it a little more easily day-to-day. Can you relate to that a little bit, Marie?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I was going to say, I totally agree. As you were speaking, I thought of an example, and it was at your studio. I remember it took a while for me to realize what it meant to be calm. That’s really not my personality, especially in the work day, and I remember leaving there trying to get to my next appointment and I was running late and I was freaking out and I remember getting on the highway and then I thought about it. And then before the next exit, I thought, “How important is it for me to really go to this meeting? Why don’t I just reschedule it?”

Normally, I wouldn’t have done anything like that, but the next exit, I got off and went back home and I attribute that to relaxing, doing one of these classes and thinking about, “You will get to your destination, it may not be the way that you originally thought,” and that helped calm me, so I can relate to what you’re talking about.

Christine Shaw: Sometimes when you just do a thing like you just described, your body goes into this state of wellbeing. Immediately, you’re like, “Oh, wow. I just noticed how tense I was and how much stress I was holding onto, and just with that one decision, for my own self-care and wellbeing, I just really released a lot of the tension.” And then within that relaxed state, you can much better perform whatever it is, perform at your job, respond in relationships, be safe on the road when you’re driving. Everything can really be benefited by you getting into a state of calm.

I researched a little, I looked on Google to see what “Keep Calm and Carry On,” where that originally came from, and it was a message that was created by the British Ministry of Information. It was like wartime propaganda department and they said, “We’ve got to get out a message to the people to help them to manage through the wartime.”

And so the “keep calm” part was just to remind people to stay levelheaded in times of turmoil, which that’s what we are experiencing now, too, with all the pandemic and everything. Then the “carry on,” it was to tell people that you can still rise above anything that’s bad that might be happening. So, that message, now we see a lot of little posters around saying, “Keep calm and…” then it’ll say something to do.

It also reminds me of these posters I used to see around, I don’t know, back in the ’70s with the image of a cat just hanging onto this branch, right? He’s barely hanging on there and the caption says, “Hang in there, baby.” I know that many of us can feel that way, too. We’re like, “Oh, I’m just barely struggling to hang on in every area of my life, and so I need some tools.” I think people are going around saying, “I need tools, I need to help myself, but I don’t know how to do it,” and they’re not quite sure where to go for those tools.

I’ve been in the yoga field for so long in the fitness field and I know that exercise and moving your body creates this sense of endorphins, which is the feel-good emotion, and also yoga helps you to relax, not only through moving your body, but also just being still with your body, and so I have a little practice that I would love to do with you, Marie, and with the audience that is called PMF, progressive muscle relaxation. Would you like to do that with me?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah, let’s try it.

Christine Shaw: All right. The purpose of this is to notice that, oh, we are holding on detention, so some people might say, “I’m not stressed.” I remember back in the day, I’ve always been busy and active and doing a variety of things. So, I remember when my sister said to me, “Wow, you have so many things going on. You must be stressed out,” and I was like, “No, I don’t feel stressed. This is just my life. This is what I do.” But then I did notice that, oh, I was holding my shoulders up by my ears, or I was breathing really shallowly, and so this practice that we’re about to do, maybe you’ll notice that, “Oh, maybe I was holding onto some tension.”

What we’re going to do is we’re going to sit tall, or you can even lie to down, and we’re just going to go through the muscles of your body. It’s a little guidance I’m going to guide you through focusing on the muscles of your body and tensing them up and then relaxing them. And we’ll see if we can get to a place where our muscles can relax more than we even think they are and we can realize some calm in the body.

Let’s begin by just relaxing here. You can close your eyes. This is just your time right now to try this practice. Just let your hands be by your side or in your lap, close your eyes, and become aware of your breathing. Notice on your inhale your abdomen goes out and on your exhale it goes in.

Take a long, slow, deep breath in through your nose and pause and then exhale and relax any tension in your body. And now take another long breath in, and as you do, just make a fist with your right hand and feel the energy and the tension going all the way up to your arm and your shoulder, just gripping your hands, your arms, your muscles of your arms, and then on your next exhale, we’re going to let it all go.

Nice. Now move to the left arm. You’re going to make a fist with your hand, squeeze all the muscles in your arm and all the way up to your shoulder and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, make some tension, and then on your exhale, just let it all go. So, both arms and hands should feel super relaxed.

Next, let’s move to your right leg and your whole leg so you can flex your toes back, point them, make the muscles engage all up to your legs and in your glutes and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the muscles of that right leg. Then with an exhale, relax.

Next, we’re going to move to the left leg. Engage the muscles of the whole leg. If you’re lying down, you can lift it off the ground, or if you’re sitting just really squeeze the muscles, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, make some tension, and now let go and relax. Now, arms and legs should feel just really like Jell-O, like you just let them go.

Next, let’s move to your whole torso. Think about engaging the abdominal muscles, the chest muscles, your back muscles, and just squeeze and tighten them even so it’s difficult to breathe. Just squeeze, squeeze, squeeze all those muscles, and then when you’re ready, let it out with a sigh and relax. Arms, legs, torso, all super relaxed.

Then the final place is going to be your face, so we’re going to make tension. Make some tension in your eyes, pucker your mouth, grip your jaw, make all of this tension in your face, where that’s a place where we can really hold a lot of tension. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze those muscles, and on your next exhale release and just allow your face to soften and completely relax.

At this point, all the muscles have had a chance to engage and then release. On the next breaths, see how different you feel from the beginning when we took those long, deep breaths and just notice how your body feels. Are you in a calmer state of being? Now, this is something you could do anytime, maybe not while driving the car, but a time when you can just lie there or sit there and concentrate on really super relaxing those muscles of your body.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: One of the things that I notice, yes, my breathing is different on the second round, but I notice the first round, it seemed as if my breathing was like how my mind was racing over my to-do list. My breathing was choppy. Now, it’s more of a flow.

Christine Shaw: Good. Yes, that’s a nice insight. That’s another really good thing, Marie, is to identify, “How am I feeling?” especially before or after some relaxing practices, not only mentally, but physically and emotionally.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. It does help things out. You don’t think about that, but you have to live through it. Once you’ve experienced the effects of doing these type of techniques, I think that what helps your body to understand, “Okay, I like this,” or, “We may need to do this a little bit more.”

Christine Shaw: Putting them into practice is sometimes the hardest thing because we kind of forget, especially if we’re in the middle of a state of imbalance in our thoughts and our body. But if you can remember, I try to keep things at their very simplest and basic, so you don’t have to remember a ton of things.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like that about the title, Stay Calm and Carry On, because as you just mentioned, some people try to find out, “Well, when can I fit this in?” I know people who are extremely busy, and with individuals multitasking, that’s the first response that they will hear in their head if they ever thought about doing something like this. It’s like, “When will I have the time? Can I make time to add it in? Where does it fall as a priority?” Sometimes we just have to take time out. In order to move forward, we have to move backwards, and that means stay still and do what we need to do for our bodies before we can actually move on. Would you agree?

Christine Shaw: I like the idea of putting the things that are your top priority in your schedule. Literally schedule a little two-minute break. Set your timer on your alarm. I remember being in a yoga class once and the teacher was being very tongue-in-cheek, but we were doing a posture, and then we moved into it and we were all holding it and breathing and really in the posture, and then he said, “And now worry,” and it just made me laugh. He was trying to add some lightness to it, but that’s the kind of thing we can do, we can worry.

Sometimes we can even schedule when you’re going to worry. You can say, “All right, if I am worrying all the time and my mind is so busy with these worry thoughts, it’s not helping me to get calm,” so go ahead and put a five minute, 10 minute in your schedule and go, “At this time, I’m going to worry about this thing,” and then move on so that you’re not holding onto that all the livelong day, you know?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, I understand. Some people don’t know how to let it go and just continue on the journey. That’s something I never thought about, schedule it in, if you schedule everything else in.

Christine Shaw: Schedule in the times that you’re going to relax, schedule in the times that you’re going to take care of you, and the times that you’re going to go ahead and worry about that to-do list. And then you move on, right?

Another little technique is something we can do that’s super easy, really quick, and that is affirmations. I really, really am a proponent of affirmations. Whenever I ask anybody, “What is an affirmation?” usually, what they’ll say is “It’s a positive thing that we say to ourselves to help us to feel good and move forward with this positive energy.”

Well, actually, an affirmation is anything that you’re repeatedly saying to yourself. So we can affirm whatever we say to ourselves, so it could be a negative thought, something that we don’t want. It’s these ruminating thoughts that are always going on our head. That’s an affirmation.

What we want to bring into our lives more are these positive affirmations. We can literally choose what we want to bring in. If we say, “I don’t want all this anger,” then we’re actually inviting in more anger because our body says, “Well, I’m going to go ahead and do what our thoughts are.” So instead, we can say something like, “I invite in peace and joy in everything I do,” something like that.

I know something that happens, though, is a lot of times people may have an affirmation that is, “I don’t matter,” something like that. And then for them to switch it over to an affirmation that’s, “I matter,” it doesn’t feel right, so that won’t work.

The affirmation has to be one that you come up with that feels right. So, it takes a little practice to say what is going to be an affirmation that I can believe that’s true and that’s going to help me throughout each day to progress, to be calm, to move forward with positive energy and focus.

The soil where we’re planting these seeds of thoughts has to be rich soil. That means our inner focus needs to be positive and rich, so what are we feeding ourselves each day? Are we feeding ourselves a positive focus or are we feeding ourselves these negative beliefs?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, let’s get back to the podcast. It’s interesting that you state that, because I remember just in yoga, there have been times that the instructor has basically talked to us about, “What do you believe your practice should include today?” And was leading you to the point of you have your own personal practice, what you feel like during that particular day, and that’s how I think about affirmations as well. It’s good when you have a group of people or if you have one other person that’s there to be a positive light for you. Even if you don’t feel like saying the affirmations, it’s amazing how your whole mindset and attitude can change by being around other people who are really ready to do those affirmations. Have you had that happen in your classes?

Christine Shaw: Yep. You know how you go in a room or someone walks in a room and you can feel their energy right away? Because we all are energy, and so we’re gathered in a group, whether it’s a small or large group, we definitely can sense the energy of the people around us, so if we have an intention, or we’re invited by the yoga teacher to say, “Set your intention,” and an intention is similar to an affirmation, then we can have this collective idea that we’re going to bring in a positive focus for our practice today. It could just be the practice on the mat, or it could be something that you’re struggling with off the mat, like a family situation or a work situation. And what energy can we invite in just with a word?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Right. Very helpful for those times, especially in the workplace when some individuals may feel as though, “Where can I have the space to go through this series of techniques to correct a situation that may be going on in my space at work?” So, it’s helpful that these are quick, very short, different things that we can do to get us back in harmony. I was getting ready to use my word “balance,” but I remember you said to switch it to “harmony.”

Christine Shaw: Yeah, excellent. See, you’re a great student. When we talk about moving on, one of the things that I focus on is that we don’t just want to be like that cat barely hanging on, but we want to move to a place where we can thrive in life, and so I know that looks different for everybody. What does your thriving in life look like and what does your thriving in life look like? Let’s move towards that.

When we have some practices set in place, like noticing our stress and releasing in our body, taking care of ourselves by maybe missing an appointment and saying, “Today I’m not going to do that. I need to take care of me.” Or by doing these positive focus affirmations. It takes practice.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, it does. It has to become a way of life. And for us to leave behind some of our past habits that kept us into, now, I’m getting to use one of my words and you probably give me something else, “bondage,” because sometimes we can be in bondage to ourself. That’s what I mean when I talk about being stuck.

You can’t see the sunset and all you can focus on is what you’re going through at that particular moment. You can only see what is black and white versus the gray area. I think I’ve heard people say “self-talk.” Until you can talk to yourself about some of the positive things that are possible, you probably can’t move forward. What are your thoughts on that?

Christine Shaw: That’s right. I believe that that’s the loop that we can get stuck in. I catch myself doing that sometimes, too, and I know how powerful my thoughts are, so when I do that, I try to quickly reverse it or say, “Change,” or I have little techniques that I can do that can bring me the act to focus in the moment.

Now, I’m not saying that every moment of my day, I’m always on this high and everything’s going well. The pandemic changed things a lot for everybody. And so with change comes uncertainty and fear and worry and doubt and confusion. All those emotions, we need to feel them.

Just the other day, I was feeling disappointed. That’s one of those things that we all can relate to, feeling disappointed. I was allowing myself to go downhill a little bit, blaming someone else, or having a little pity party for myself. But then I just kept repeating out loud, “I feel disappointed. I feel disappointed,” feeling it in my body, feeling in my mind.

The more that I acknowledged my feeling, the more it diminished. And I was able to move through it and get to the next moment where I felt better and I thought, “Well, that happened, and I’m not going to stay disappointed all day long. That’s going to mess up my whole day.” But we have to say, “All right, I have this feeling, I have this emotion. I’m feeling it. I’m not going to stay stuck,” to use your word. That’s a good thing to recognize. I feel like I’m getting stuck here: How can I move through it?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, as you were speaking, I thought of something that I’ve been reading a lot lately. We’re still what I call one of the “popular months to change jobs.” And there was a posting on LinkedIn that was talking about different individuals who have gone through a number of and a series of interviews over the last year or so and getting to the point where they finally got a job. And I think the moral of the story was don’t stop, keep going. Don’t become discouraged about what it looks like in the beginning because if you keep moving, you will get to the point that you want to be as well as have a lot of experiences that you can share with others to get through the process as well. So thank you for sharing that information because it immediately made me think of an example that appears to be of concern to a number of people, that whole talent acquisition and recruiting process.

Christine Shaw: Yeah, so being able to keep moving, just like you said. I do some spiritual practices and I have this angel card deck and I picked a card out one day when I was in the middle of writing my book. I’m writing a book called “Yoga for Emotional Support: Practices for Befriending Yourself.” I’ve been working, working on the book, and now it’s in the editing stages. It should be coming out soon.

But I picked this angel card because I really was in a stuck place and it said, “Keep moving,” and I just stuck that right on the front of my computer and I just kept moving. Like you said, that’s all it takes. No matter if you’re going to fail time and time and time again, you’re going to always learn some new things, and the keep moving is still sticking with our theme. Just stay calm and move on. Action is always going to be your good friend to get to what you want.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. You can’t stay still, you have to keep moving on. Well, Christine, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Christine Shaw: I think the closing thoughts are “Be good to yourself.” I love Ellen. She’s always so positive and she says this message “Be kind to one another,” right? But be kind to yourself, and that’s going to look different for every single person, but it’s definitely not going to include negative self-talk or beating yourself up or adding too much to your schedule or worrying, right? It’s going to include the opposite of all those, so give yourself a break, give yourself the time you need to self-care. I think when we’re done this podcast right now, I’m going to go for a little walk with my dog, have a little me time.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, I love me time. We have been speaking with Christine Shaw. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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