Mind over Matters Stress-management Expert Tells People to Put Themselves on Their To-do List

Kate Forest calls it the ‘red light shoulder turn,’ and that name pretty much says it all.

It’s a stress-reduction exercise designed to help transform a generally negative experience — an annoying stoppage in traffic — into something positive.

It’s a simple step that only takes a few seconds, said Forest, noting that the maneuver involves merely a few slow, deep breaths and a slight turn of the shoulders to reduce tension. But it could, if undertaken with other, similarly motivated steps, have a rather significant impact.

The shoulder turn is one of many exercises — physical and mental — that Forest recommends during a seminar she offers titled Time-saving Ways to Lower Stress. It’s the most popular of a short list of programs she has created in conjunction with her latest business venture, called the Kate Forest Life Wellness Connection.

Like her first business endeavor, the Bliss Yoga Center, it is designed primarily to change the way people think about things, or what is known as ‘cognitive restructuring.’

Indeed, in her marketing materials on the Wellness Connection, she borrows a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

This was how Forest felt after completing her first experience with yoga nearly eight years ago — “I remember sitting at home that night and feeling differently than I was used to feeling; I felt a peace of mind, a calmness, that had eluded me for a long time” — and she was so motivated by the experience that she decided she wanted to teach the subject. Thus, the former salesperson, hairstylist, and CPR instructor turned entrepreneur.

And earlier this year, she became one in the serial category, starting the Wellness Connection and quickly booking seminars at several area businesses, including Health New England, Springfield College, and Landmark Realtors. The calendar for 2007 is quickly filling up, and Forest has already scheduled a women’s wellness program for next March at Valleystone Credit Union, a few blocks down Boston Road from her yoga studio in Wilbraham.

While her various programs have many goals, their basic mission is to help individuals find ways to reduce stress in their lives. The motivation is obvious, she said, adding that stress impacts every facet of one’s life — from overall health to life at home to productivity at the office — and therefore it must be addressed proactively.

“Stress can contribute to high blood pressure, sleepless nights, fatigue, anxiety, physical aches, and chronic illness,” she explained. “It can also cause you to become scattered and unfocused, and when you’re trying to juggle all of your many responsibilities, this can undermine even your best efforts.”

Reducing stress is a lifelong exercise, she said, one that starts with an attitude that this assignment is not only doable, but quite realistic. And it begins with people putting themselves on their to-do list.

“Too many don’t,” Forest explained, and that’s because they’re too busy taking care of everyone else — at home and the office. “What we hear from our culture is ‘work harder, do more, work faster, you’re not good enough, don’t rest, don’t relax, you need to just force yourself to work harder.’

“The truth is we need to rest, and we need to renew,” she continued, “even if it’s only for five minutes a day or one minute at a time — or three deep breaths at a red light.”

Stress Test

Forest told The Healthcare News that her entrepreneurial ventures are, in some ways, reflective of the message she leaves with people through her various programs. In short, she tells them to never stop searching for what’s right for them.

She spent many years searching — and cutting hair — until she discovered yoga at an eight-hour session at Westfield’s Genesis Spiritual Life Center, and decided then and there that she wanted to become an instructor.

“I knew that I had found something that could not only help me, but help me to help others — on a number of levels,” she said. After successfully passing several courses and gaining certification as an advanced instructor, she opened Bliss Yoga Center in 2001.

She considers the Wellness Connection to be an expansion of the yoga venture, and a way to take its basic assignment — ‘bringing mindful living to life’ — to a much broader audience. And by mindful living, Forest means creating a balance in life, developing positive habits, and finding what many people believe is missing from their lives — that peace of mind that was missing from hers.

Accomplishing all this often requires an attitude adjustment, or cognitive restructuring, she explained, referring to individuals’ broad reaction to all that is happening around them, and the need to take a more positive, far less stressful general outlook.

“One thing that most people don’t realize is that they do have a choice in how they respond to stress,” she said, “and this is a big part of my teachings — helping people to understand that awareness and that they do have a choice in how they think and how they let their negative inner voice talk to them.

“Cognitive restructuring is just retraining your mind,” she continued, “because so many people are conditioned to think negatively about themselves, other people, and their work situation; I want them to focus more on what’s right than what’s wrong.”

Doing so will help an individual on a number of levels, starting with their physical health, she explained, adding that performance on the job will also likely improve, as well as interpersonal relationships. Why? Because people can be more focused on what’s in front of them.

Indeed, stress and the pressures of life and work have the ability to make people scatterbrained, she said, adding that, when one’s attention is divided, he or she is less likely to succeed in whatever it is they’re doing, be it a project at work or communicating with a spouse or child.

“We’re just so busy in our society, and we’re so addicted to rushing, that when we do get to spend time with our loved ones, often we’re lost in our thoughts,” she explained.

“We’re thinking about our day, we’re thinking about what happened at work; we’re there, but we’re not really there.

“That’s why I tell people when they do have time to be with loved ones, to really be with them,” she continued. “So many people are, in essence, sleepwalking through their days. I try to teach people how to pay attention on purpose.”

These are messages she delivers through a series of programs, one that she hopes to expand in the months ahead.

In addition to ‘Time-saving Ways to Reduce Stress,’ Forest’s current offerings include:

  • ‘Change Your Perception — Change Your Life’: This program is designed to help people maintain a positive attitude, despite challenging work environments, pessimistic people, and individuals’ own self-critical inner dialogue;
  • ‘Mindful Eating’: Poor eating habits are a byproduct of today’s busy lifestyles, said Forest, adding that they contribute to a laundry list of problems ranging from sleepless nights to poor self-esteem. This program spotlights that cause-and-effect phenomenon and offers suggestions on how to fit healthy, mindful eating into a busy schedule;
  • ‘Stretch Away Tension to Renew in Minutes’: Physical tension causes tight muscles, which can lead to body aches, headaches, reduced circulation of blood and oxygen, a tired mind, and diminished energy levels, said Forest.
    This program provides participants with simple yoga stretches to reduce physical tension and chronically tight muscles, while improving flexibility, releasing stress, and creating an overall sense of personal well-being;
  • ‘Life Balance Through Mindful Living’: This program helps individuals who feel overwhelmed, overstressed, and disconnected from what matters most to create a better balance in their lives. It also demonstrates how to fit self-renewal into even the busiest of days.

Looking at her programs from a business perspective, Forest sees a strong market for her services — an indication of the prevalence of stress in today’s society, as well as a desire among many people to at least attempt to do something about it.

“These programs are popular, and they’re going to be more so in the future, because through them, people can see that they have options,” she explained. “It’s all about taking the small steps, not to just be more productive at work, but to find more meaning in life.”

It’s All Well and Good

Returning to the red light shoulder turn, Forest said that exercise is a simple yet effective example of how stress permeates life, and how individuals can deal with it.

A red light slows one down, possibly making an individual late for whatever they’re driving to, thus creating tension, she explained.

Instead of focusing on these negatives, shoulder turn practitioners can instead work to alleviate tension by doing their mind and body some good.

Taking such an attitude from the intersection and into the office and the home requires some work on the part of the individual, Forest admitted, but making the effort is necessary if someone is to counter all the many negative impacts of stress.

“The thought process can create more stress, or it can decrease your stress,” she said. “It all comes down to how we think about things.”

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