We all know that it is healthier to be relaxed than to be constantly in a state of stress. Yet, how many of us are taught as children how to relax? How many of us are take the opportunity to relax in the workplace? And how many of us are confronted by our spouses, our co-workers and our friends and are told to just relax?
Jennifer R. Bloome, an occupational therapist in Eagan, Minn., began to realize the physical, mental and emotional benefits of relaxation and guided imagery in working with clients suffering from injury and chronic illness, and that would lead to an entirely new career path. She studied at the Mind-Body Medical Institute in Boston and followed up by studying childbirth education and how relaxation techniques affect pregnancy. Her personal health issues – her first two children having to be delivered Caesarian – further motivated her to learn more about how relaxation promotes wellness.
In support of her new role as a health and wellness counselor specializing in women’s health, Bloome founded Anji Inc., a company devoted to supporting women’s health "from the inside out." She provides individual and group training for area residents and an interactive website to assist women worldwide. Her customized guided relaxation CDs have been well received. She finds that many health concerns can be minimized with relaxation.
"I specialize in fertility," she says. "A lot of information out there shows that with increasing more stress, more physiological changes take place in the body that can work against fertility. PMS responds very well to relaxation. Depression responds very well. Fibromyalgia. Chronic fatigue. Many of the immune-based health issues respond very well to these types of techniques as part of an overall comprehensive approach."
Bloome spoke with Edge Life about the role of relaxation in health care, and how the process of learning how to relax more effectively has improved her own life.
Why did you create Anji Inc.?
Jennifer Bloome: It really was a personal journey. It started with my journey with pregnancy and delivery. I had had two Caesarians for my first two pregnancies and I didn’t want to do that again, so I began to learn a lot about relaxation and meditation. In my professional life, I was an occupational therapist. I began to apply the relaxation techniques that I had been using with my patients on myself. As all childbirth educators know, the skills that you learn for pregnancy are life skills. You’re learning how to relax your body and how to listen to your body. I found that I had a passion for it and wanted to take what I had learned for myself and share with other women. When I started Anji, it was specifically around pregnancy. I have since expanded it to all of the life cycles of women.
Why is relaxation important during pregnancy?
JB: It’s important both for the mom and the baby. In the mom, relaxation allows you to handle the physical and the emotional changes that are going on in your body. It helps you prepare for labor and delivery.
It’s important for the baby because the hormones within the mother’s body work to sculpt the baby’s brain. When the mom is stressed, the baby is bathed in those same hormones. Research has shown that the children of moms who have those higher levels of stress during pregnancy go on to have different types of temperaments. They tend to be more hyperactive and have other acting-out behaviors. When you are able to bring in relaxation throughout the pregnancy, the baby feels stress and then it feels relief from the stress – and then it feels stress and release from the stress. Such babies are more peaceful. They come in wired to know that there are stressors in life, but then they go away. You are literally changing your baby’s brain as you add relaxation techniques during pregnancy.
What does "Anji" mean and why did you choose that name?
JB: ANJI is an Ojibwe word that means "change." Women’s lives are all about change. You’re changing through the years as your body changes, and you’re changing on a minute-to-minute basis with all the different roles that you have to play in your life. I thought Anji was a fitting sentiment for this company.
You make a remark on your website that women are often told to relax throughout their lives by doctors, co-workers, partners, spouses, but it’s easier said that done, right? And you indicate that that alone creates stress when they’re told that.
JB: Right. If you come to your spouse or you come to a doctor and you say, "My life isn’t working; I’m having these physical symptoms and I’m having these emotional symptoms," and they just say to you, "All you’ve got to do is relax and you’ll be fine." It really is a condescending answer. Even though it may be well-intentioned, the person making the suggestion doesn’t back it up with tools. How do you do relax under these circumstances? That’s really the next step. Our lives are full. How do you work a way to relax into your very busy life? When you’re told just to relax, it feels like you’re being told that nothing is really all that important.
Do you think that our traditional medical community knows how to teach people how to relax?
JB: I don’t think they have the time to teach people how to relax. I know there are some physicians who find that important, but it isn’t part of the traditional medical model. That is changing, but I don’t think there is a lot of importance placed on it.
Do you think that’s a missing component of our health-care system?
JB: I do, because it is really a self-care tool. It is a preventative tool – something that could really go a long way to helping people control their own health. I really think it is important that women be able to learn to do these things for themselves, because that puts each woman back in power, in a place of power, to be able to say, "I have something going on in my life and I can take control of it."
Is relaxation an integral part of healing? Why?
JB: I think so, yes, because when your body is under stress, everything in your body is on high alert. When it becomes long-term stress, your body’s systems are being asked to function in a way that they weren’t intended to. The stress response is really supposed to be short-term, but we have so many long-term stressors in our life. When your body’s out of whack, everything else cannot function the way that it’s supposed to. When you take the burden of stress off of the body, you allow your endocrine system, nervous system and all of the systems to come back into balance, and that then allows the body to take a look at what needs to be healed.
What is the relaxation response?
JB: The relaxation response is a physiological response in your body. It’s the opposite of what happens to your body when you’re under stress. When you’re under stress, your heart rate goes up, your breathing goes up and your metabolism goes up. The relaxation response is the physiological opposite. It’s what happens when you allow that stress response to shut down and allow your body to go back to status quo.
Why don’t we have that occurring on a regular basis naturally?
JB: Because there are a lot of physical stressors and emotional stressors in our lives. For example, let’s say somebody has financial concerns or somebody has a lot of job responsibility. Those things are always running through the mind, and the body reads that as stress. So when you don’t stop and allow your body to shut down and walk away from those stressors, then you have this low-level stress response happening in your body continuously.
Now, if you can go out and take a walk – and have the ability to turn your mind off – you can induce the relaxation response. There are many other ways to do that, as well, such as gardening or doing yoga – any activity that really allows you to shut down the brain from the cognitive functioning point of view.
Is that the hardest part in this whole process?
JB: Yes. For me and for a lot of women, it’s really hard to be able to take that time and say, "This is just for me. I can turn everything else off." We aren’t taught how to do that. We’re taught to strive for more and always be doing something – and there’s always 20 things in the back of your mind that you should be doing.
How do you help women relax?
JB: What I do is I take women through a four-step process:
i First, I teach them to relax using guided meditations and breathing, very basic skills that allow their bodies to let go of the stress. I teach them the mechanics of relaxation.
i The second step is release. A part of relaxing is about getting rid of those thoughts and emotions that create the stress in the first place, so I teach people to let go through Emotional Freedom Technique and a couple other energy release techniques.
i The third step is renew. Once you get rid of something, you need to fill back up with what you do want in your life. It’s a lot easier to say what you don’t want than what you do want, so I help women figure out what they want to feel, how they want to be in the world, what they want their roles to be.
i The final step is to reconnect. That’s the process of learning how to do this on your own and how do you take this model that you’ve learned from me and apply it to your day-to-day life when things are kind of falling apart around you.
In terms of the word "change," do some people really have to make a change in their thinking to go down this road of relaxation?
JB: Yes, it’s really about making a change in how you kind of talk to yourself and how you perceive the situations that you’re in. Often, we’ve gotten ourselves into a positions where everything is an A+ priority. Or if you know something is going wrong, you disasterize it, making it seem worse than it is. This process is about training yourself to change your perception of things in your life.
And a lot of the way that we do things could be habitual from childhood.
JB: Exactly. You learn them from your environment. It depends on how your parents are. It depends on really how the community around you sees things. Children are stressed because there’s so much on the news and so much that they’re seeing and having to listen to that just adds into this collective sense of stress that a community is carrying.
Would there be any keys to look for in children for those who may need the type of relaxation training that you’re giving adults?
JB: A key is if kids are having difficulty sleeping. A number of kids get gastrointestinal issues or headaches and symptoms of depression. Watch for kids who are hyper-alert as to how they’re doing in school. It’s not just "I want to do a good job," but "I have to do a good job."
Do you think learning how to relax and how to respond to stress should become part of the educational process?
JB: I would love to see it. If kids are taught these tools when they are young, that just adds to the bag of tools they have as they start to go through things that are more challenging, as they get into high school, as they get into college, as they get into their work life.
And you have to believe that as years go on that it’s becoming more and more stressful for kids at a younger age.
JB: Absolutely. There are so many demands. I’ve got three kids – a fifth grader, third grader and a kindergartner – and it’s amazing what we’re asking them to do, with the amount of homework and sports and all of that.
Since 1999, when you first visualized the creation of Anji Inc., how has your understanding of relaxation changed?
JB: When I started it was very much a physical process. It was very much about the mechanics of relaxing the body. But I really understand more now that it truly is a the dance between the physical and the emotional. The more you relax your physical body, the more you need to attend to the emotions and the cognitive pieces. It’s about how we think of our lives and how we talk to ourselves. So many of us think, "If I just push myself a little bit harder. But if I relax and I’m really good to myself, I’m not going to meet my goals. I’ll just end up lying around and not doing anything." Actually, it’s just the opposite. It’s really about being able to attend to both the physical body and the emotional body.
Because when you relax, you’ll be able to accomplish more.
JB: Exactly. And when you’re not focused on the worst, you’re able to draw more positive results to you. What you focus on is what comes to you, so when you’re focused on stressful things, you get more of those.
We still have a male-dominated society. What is it that you would want to tell men about the stress that women are under today, something that they may not realize because they’re not women?
JB: Men are very good at taking an issue and focusing on it and solving it, getting from Point A to Point B. Women take everything on. They are carrying the weight of what’s going on in their family, their extended family, their job, what they want and what their dreams are. They carry that with them every single minute of every single day. Part of our job is to learn how to not do that.
If you come to understand that about the women in your life, their behavior and attitudes and their concerns and their worries will make a lot more sense.
You started your business as a result of your own personal growth. How would you characterize the path that you’ve been on in terms of your physical health?
JB: I have seen tremendous changes in both my physical health and my emotional health as a result of the work I have done. I was able to go on and have a vaginal delivery. When I’m dealing with something physically, relaxation is really the first place I go to resolve it.
How would you compare yourself before and now?
JB: When I first started this process, I was a chronic worrier. I was an A+ personality in terms of being completely driven. Now, I’m much more centered and I work from intention as opposed to working from the need to work, if that makes any sense. I feel like I’m much more in the flow of life as opposed to resisting it and feeling I have to be out there and charging ahead. I’m meeting my dreams. I’m completely different than I was.
You have described your career path as a journey of the heart. Why?
JB: There are a couple of different reasons. My business has really mirrored my personal development. My understanding of how to be a strong woman was something that wasn’t taught to me. That is something so important, and I want to give that to others and allow other women to be able to make that same change.
What are your dreams for your practice?
JB: I’ve just developed a new resource called The Anji Connection, an internet resource for women. It includes sections on fertility, pregnancy and women’s health. It’s a collection of articles and resources for learning about complementary medicine in relation to specific conditions. In addition, practitioners will be listed as part of this so people can find a trusted resource. We are planning live components, support boards, places where people can really come together and learn.
Women need to be educated more about how powerful holistic therapies can be in maintaining their health. I want to build a community of different types of complementary medical providers who focus on women’s health. I focus on mind/body, but I’d like to bring in homeopaths and chiropractors and many others so people can really begin to understand how powerful the holistic therapies can be. That’s where I’m focusing a lot of my efforts right now.
Any final thoughts?
JB: I really want women to know that they are in control of their health and wellness. So often we feel like we’re victims when it comes to our own health – and we don’t have to be. Yes, there are things that happen to you, but the way that you react to them can make a difference, and that can really create a positive change in your quality of life.
A lot of women look outside of themselves, thinking, "I want my doctor to fix me. I want my friends to fix me. I want my partner to fix me." A lot of us put our happiness on other people. I really want each woman to understand that she is really in charge. While that can feel very weighty, it really is a position of power when you can make that switch and understand, "Hey, wait a minute! I’m in the driver’s seat here!"
You’re empowering them to claim their happiness.
For more information on Jennifer Bloome and Anji Inc., visit www.AnjiOnline.com and www.AnjiConnection.com