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Teaching the Art of Self-Nurture

Let’s face it. We live in a high stress world. The daily demands of family and career leave us feeling as if we have little time to keep for ourselves. Additionally, people – especially women – instinctively tend to neglect themselves while catering to the needs of those around them. It is not news that stress and self-neglect manifest themselves physically in many ways. Nurturing one’s self is an intentional process that, once learned, helps us control the stress in our lives rather than allowing stress to control us.
Stress begins on an unconscious level, as a worry or a nagging thought that builds-up until physical symptoms begin to show.

These symptoms often begin with muscle tension resulting in soreness, headache, and fatigue. Often, either we choose to ignore, or we are not aware of, the stress in our lives until full physical manifestation has occurred, leading to such symptoms as sleep disturbance, decreased immune system, hair loss, weight fluctuation, and severe skin conditions. Ignoring these warning signs can have serious repercussions, including depression, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
As aestheticians, one of our most important roles is helping our clients to de-stress. We need not only to get them through the front door and into the treatment room: we need to get to know each individual client, learning about both their physical and emotional lifestyles. In doing so, we may truly help our clients on their journey of self-nurture.
Aestheticians and body-workers can utilize various simple relaxation techniques in the treatment room. Spa professionals can easily teach these techniques to their clients for use in stressful daily life. This way, the spa treatments prove to be even more effective.

Breathing
Most people breathe only on a surface level. In other words, when we inhale, we fill only the uppermost portion of our lungs. Society teaches us to hold in our stomachs, thereby rendering it difficult for our lungs to work at full capacity. Unfortunately, while a flat tummy may seem desirable from a fashion standpoint, physically holding your stomach in deprives cells, tissues, and organs of oxygen. Surface breathing means receiving only a fraction of the oxygen our system needs to function optimally.
Deep, or abdominal, breathing offers instant relaxation by delivering oxygen to cells throughout the body and eliminating toxins in the form of carbon dioxide. In order to deep breath, stomach muscles must be relaxed. Determine effective deep breathing by placing one hand on the stomach and one hand on the chest. Upon inhalation, the hand that elevates more indicates whether the air is concentrated in the upper lungs (shallow breathing) or extends into the lower lungs (deep breathing).
Deep breathing requires practice to become most effective. Think of abdominal breathing as breathing with mental awareness. Once an individual masters the disciplined process of abdominal breathing, this technique becomes one of the easiest stress reduction tools on which an individual can call.
In the treatment room, the spa therapist should allow the client time to comfortably situate herself, and then begin the session by explaining the process of abdominal breathing. Include a brief explanation of how and why the technique benefits her. Ask the client to relax her stomach and slowly inhale deeply through her nose. Have her hold the breath for four seconds and then slowly exhale through her mouth. Inhalation and exhalation should last about seven seconds each. Repeat the process several times before beginning the actual treatment. Once the treatment is complete, inform the client that she can perform this breathing technique anytime, anywhere; whenever she finds herself facing a stressful situation.

Mindfulness
Our thought processes are one primary source of stress. Too often, our minds operate in overdrive, with too many random – and all-to-often negative – thoughts racing through our heads all at once. It is no wonder we suffer from headaches, sleeplessness, and “lines of expression” furrowing our faces. Rather than living, and thinking, in the present moment, we allow our minds to wander to thoughts of unnecessary worry.
Multi-tasking has become an inappropriately revered quality in our modern world. Being busily at work on one project no longer seems to gain us points when climbing the ladder of success. Rather, society pressures us to be able to do several tasks simultaneously. Practicing mindfulness allows us to complete our tasks more effectively without mistakes, thereby working more efficiently.
Calming the mind is less complex than it may seem. Mindfulness, as defined by Herbert Benson, M.D., founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, is “…the practice of learning to pay attention to what is happening to you from moment to moment”. Practicing mindfulness means concentrating on the task on which you are presently working, no matter how mundane that task may seem. In other words, to be mindful, you must slow down and bring your full awareness to not only what you are doing but also to how the inner self is experiencing the activity.[1]
At the start of each session, simply remind the client that this time belongs to her. Suggest that she allow her mind to slow down so she may enjoy the treatment she is about to receive. Play soft music or allow water to trickle in a fountain and suggest that she concentrate on the sounds. Better yet, suggest that she concentrate on her breathing while imagining she is in her favorite place for relaxation. Inform the client that through this exercise she is practicing mindfulness. Politely reinforce the fact that worrying does not solve any problems.
Encourage your client to practice mindfulness while performing such mundane activities as doing the dishes. While she completes the task at hand, she should only think about that task, and appreciate it in that moment. As she develops this stress reducing skill, she will be able to incorporate it whenever she finds herself in the midst of racing from one worried thought to the next.

Grace and Gratitude
How we react to any given situation reveals much about our stress-coping mechanisms. WordReference.com Dictionary defines grace as “a disposition to kindness and compassion”. Gratitude means “a feeling of thankfulness and appreciation.”
Consider the last time you found yourself caught in a traffic jam caused by a car accident. Were you agitated and impatient? Did you feel your stress level increasing with each passing minute? Take a mental step away and look at the same situation with a positive mindset. Be thankful that you were not the one in an accident. Be thankful that you can afford a car or that you are expected and wanted at your destination. Utilize the unexpected time to practice some abdominal breathing or mindfulness techniques. Listen to your favorite CD while taking note of the beautiful sky or flowers you otherwise would not notice.
When incorporating grace and gratitude into our lives we find we can see any potentially stressful situation with a more positive frame of mind. Teach your clients the arts of grace and gratitude by example. Remember – kindness is contagious.
Greet your clients calmly, smiling, and with genuine enthusiasm for their presence. Push any stress you may have experienced throughout the day out of your mind, even if you are dealing with the client who caused the stress. Offer them extra amenities, such as herbal tea and warmed slippers, to ensure a positive, relaxing experience. After their treatment, instead of hurrying off to your next appointment, spend a few minutes with them, inquiring as to their satisfaction. In addition, remember to thank your clients sincerely for their loyalty.

Meditation
The results of a study conducted at Harvard Medical School proved that meditation has several physical benefits including significantly slowing the heart rate and breathing rate, reducing necessary oxygen consumption by 20 percent, and increasing the presence of brain wave patterns indicative of relaxation.
The word meditation makes many people cringe. The term evokes thoughts of contorting one’s body into uncomfortable positions while forcing one’s mind to go blank. Some popular objections people offer when hearing the suggestion of meditation are, “I can’t make my mind go blank”, “I can’t sit still that long” and “I don’t have time”. However, ask the same people how much time they spend watching TV each day and the average answer is three to five hours.
Everybody needs self-time, during a conscious state, in which to rest and rejuvenate her mind. Although we rejuvenate our systems while sleeping, our minds continue working on our worries at a subconscious level, sometimes leaving us even more mentally exhausted. True self-time is accomplished in a comfortable position, whether it be lying on one’s back, sitting in the yoga “lotus” position, or lying on one’s side curled in a fetal position.
By practicing effective self-time, we eventually achieve a state of meditation. It is not necessary to achieve a blank mind when first practicing meditation. It is more important to learn to control our thought processes than to lose them altogether. A most effective way to learn to meditate is to set aside 10 minutes for oneself in the morning and another 10 minutes in the evening, each day.
To begin meditation, wearing nonrestrictive clothing, settle in to one of the recommended positions. If sitting in the lotus position, make sure the back is straight, and the waist is over the hips, rather than slouched back. Begin by engaging in deep breathing. Concentrate on each breath and only on each breath. If your mind begins to wander, allow individual thoughts to enter the brain, but then gently release them rather than fixating. In this way, the thoughts flow through – instead of invading – the consciousness. When you find yourself holding a thought, immediately focus back on your breathing.
Encourage clients to meditate by instructing them to lie still for 10 minutes after a treatment has ended. Offer them an appropriate affirmation to repeat with each inhalation and suggest they release any negative thoughts with each exhalation.

Exercise and Stretching
Stress, when ignored, manifests itself in our muscles. Intentional physical movement gives the body an outlet for tension and stress. Exercise releases endorphins, the body’s own chemicals that produce feelings of well-being. Even simple changes in routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking at the rear end of a parking lot, can give the body enough of a boost to effectively trigger a reduction in stress levels.
Yoga combines physical movements and stretching with breathing techniques and energy balance, thus benefiting us physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Such diversity in benefits makes yoga the perfect exercise for stress management. Practice at least 20 minutes of yoga each day to improve the body’s ability to cope with stress. The benefits of yoga are so numerous; a separate article would be necessary to fully explain this topic.
Stress often first manifests itself physically as tension in the neck, progressing to back aches and headaches. In the treatment room, while your client is practicing abdominal breathing before the treatment, gently push down on her shoulders while she exhales, releasing them to a relaxed position when she inhales. Next, cup your hands behind her head, gently lifting her chin to her chest. Finally, tilt her head, ear to shoulder on each side, providing a good stretch to the neck. Tell her these are easy stretches to accomplish whenever she feels her neck tensing. A final stretch you can demonstrate, which can be executed virtually anywhere is to interlock the fingers at chest level, extending the arms out until the shoulders round forward, thus releasing tension in the shoulders and upper back. Eliminating the first symptoms as we encounter them is an excellent way to combat stress.

Nutrition
Stress consumes energy and weakens the immune system. Proper nutrition fortifies our bodies and strengthens the immune system. Therefore, what we ingest plays an important role in stress management.
The adrenal gland reacts to stress by releasing the hormone cortisol. When this hormone enters the bloodstream, it triggers the body’s response mechanisms. One such response results in altered dopamine levels and suppressed serotonin. Frequent exposure to high levels of cortisol exhausts the body’s physical resources, impairs memory, and increases susceptibility to depression.[2]
The chemical changes that occur as a response to stress result in dietary cravings. This explains the common stress response of nibbling on junk food. Snacks high in fat and sugar decrease our ability to cope by robbing our systems of such vitamins as C and B. Both vitamins are essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. Vitamin C suppresses production of the stress hormone cortisol.
Educate your clientele to follow healthy diets. Suggest nutrient-rich fruits as alternatives to common sweets. Stress the importance of fresh vegetables and whole grains for providing our bodies with the necessary B vitamins. Encourage them to drink ample amounts of water to flush toxins and maintain hydration thus maintaining efficient bodily functions.
Because we expend more energy during stressful times, our needs for sleep increase. Such nutrients as calcium and magnesium help regulate stress by acting as a natural sleep aid.[3] Under normal circumstances, our bodies require at least seven hours of restful sleep each night. To ensure restful sleep, avoid excess caffeine, alcohol, and high caloric foods.
Stress can affect our entire beings, if we let it. The techniques mentioned above help us to overcome the negative effects of stress by nurturing ourselves—mind, spirit, and body.

[1] Don Colbert, M.D., Stress Less (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.2005) p.230
[2] Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D. Food & Mood (Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 1999) p.176
[3] See note 2; p.230

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