Beat Social Awkwardness

Social nervousness is normal. Walking into a party where we know no one can set the most outgoing of us on edge. According to Dr. Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, and author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook, more than 80 percent of people describe themselves as shy in certain situations. Luckily, there are ways to push past the discomfort. Here, Antony’s surefire strategies to handle any social setting with grace.

Public Speaking: To erase the jitters, know your material, your audience and rehearse your speech ahead of opening night. But more importantly, take a close look at anxiety-provoking thoughts and extinguish them. Remind yourself that the stakes are not as high as they might feel; you are speaking to a group of equally human people, and feeling a little nervous is perfectly normal. Also, pay attention to your body. Take some slow deep breaths, relax clenched shoulders, stand up straight -- and smile. Being stone-faced can actually increase your level of stress. Finally, says Antony, the key to feeling better in front of a group is exposure. The more you do, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect (and less cringe-worthy).

Dating: Change your perspective. A date is about seeing if you have enough in common with someone; it’s not a measure of your value as a human being. Also, bring down the intensity of the engagement by keeping first dates low-key and short -- a lunch date or a cup of coffee, instead of a five-course dinner and a night at the opera.

Job Interviews: Ease nerves by preparing properly. Make sure to research the company and know the position of interest. Practice mock interviews with friends or family members who will be willing to role-play and ask difficult questions. Next, understand that some level of nervousness is expected. “When I interview someone who seems overly confident, I wonder if they might make for a difficult co-worker or employee,” says Antony. Finally, be yourself -- it dispels nervousness.

Social Gatherings: Small talk is an art, and knowing how to practice it is key to feeling comfortable at parties and get-togethers. Ask open-ended questions to add richness to a conversation and keep it going. So instead of asking, “Do you like your job?” Say, “Tell me about your job.” Next, look for common interests. If you can’t think of any, ask how the other person knows the host, and share your point of connection. Finally, recognize that all conversations have a natural life span. Often people feel like a failure if they can’t keep the chatter going indefinitely, but that’s unrealistic, says Dr. Antony. When a conversation winds down it’s usually because it has run its course. Don’t feel like you have to engineer an excuse to get away. Tell them it was great to meet them and you hope you’ll have a chance to talk later. Then excuse yourself politely.

How to Win People Over

We’ve all been there: frustrated when we don’t get what we want. At times we talk until we’re blue in the face and still fail at convincing the other person to see things our way. 

You don’t have to cajole, whine, beg or intimidate to get your way. There are better ways. “In life, there are times we literally have to ask for what we want,” says Lizzie Post, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition.

The trick: To do it in a way that doesn’t come across as demanding, pushy or entitled, says Post. The result: Less stress for you, and a win-win situation for all.

Scenario #1: Your spouse insists on reading the newspaper during breakfast, but you’re hungry for conversation. How do you convince him to put down the paper and talk?

Master It: Often people try to win their spouses over with noise and negativity, but this usually results in the opposite, says Alisa Bowman, author of the book and blog, Project Happily Ever. Just ask for what you want, she says. “Get rid of all the language about your emotions and justifications, using as few sentences as possible,” she suggests. Saying something like, “I’d really love it if we could talk over breakfast,” is succinct and to the point, without unnecessary blaming or nagging.

On the other hand, says Post, you have to recognize that not everyone is a morning person. So don’t be offended if you can’t get your hubby to chat. In this case, persuasion might not be the best route to take. Instead, try working toward a compromise; have a short conversation when you’re waking up in bed, or read the paper together over a cup of coffee, she suggests.

Scenario #2: You live in a quiet, residential neighborhood. Your neighbor’s dog stays outside much of the day and barks non-stop.

Master It: You need to have a face-to-face conversation about the disruption the dog is causing, says Post. You might even want to bring along a peace offering, like brownies, cookies or a bottle of wine, suggests Bowman. “Be positive. Don’t show any dislike for the animal himself, but do show concern for the behavior that’s going on,” Post says. She suggests trying something like, “I want your dog to be able to enjoy the outside, but I’d also like to enjoy quiet as well.” The goal here is to get the other person to be sympathetic to your need -- and not to be defensive about their dog. And remember: it’s the owner’s responsibility to address the problem, not yours.

Scenario #3: You work with a team, but a few people are not pulling their weight; they’re lazy or just not as committed as you, bringing down the performance of the entire group. You don’t want to rat on your co-workers, yet you also don’t want to appear like a slacker to your boss.

Master It: To ensure the project will get done, you need to step up and organize the group as a whole, says Post. Write out who is responsible for what, including the deadlines. Then e-mail the schedule to the group and schedule regular follow-up meetings so you can check in with one another. “This way you have something actionable to turn to, and everyone will be accountable,” Post says.  If and when the boss asks what happened, you have the written proof of exactly what is going on.

4 Stretches That Stop Back Pain

One of the top complaints I hear from new yogis is lower back pain. In fact, many people begin yoga at the urging of their doctor for this exact reason. Back pain is often caused by another region of the body -- tight hips or shoulders could account for aches felt in the lumbar region. The good news: A lot of lower back pain can be cured with a basic regimen of stretching and breathing.

Of course, I’m not a doctor -- and you should always check with yours before beginning any exercise program. That said, we live in a society that does not value proper body alignment. We drive all the time or slouch at our desks for hours on end, so it’s no surprise that we end up with aches and pains. That’s why stretching is an important component of any effort to alleviate back tension and create an overall healthy lifestyle.

The following poses will help loosen up your muscles and offer relief. Start by doing each pose three times in succession for at least five breaths each, three times a week, and increase the frequency if you’re seeing good results.

Cat Pose (Marjaryasana)

This pose increases back, neck and shoulder flexibility.

1.    Begin on your hands and knees, with your shoulders directly above your wrists and hips above your knees. Find length in your neck by extending your head forward while looking straight down at the floor.

2.    As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling as you tuck your chin toward your chest, making sure to keep your shoulders and knees in position. Release your head toward the floor, so there is no tension in your neck.

3.    As you inhale, come back to a neutral position on your hands and knees, gazing on the floor just in front of your fingers, keeping your abdominal muscles engaged. Repeat this stretch at least 10 times.

Seated Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

This pose opens your hips and shoulders and strengthens your mid-back.

1.    Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your knees, putting your feet on the floor then slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip.

2.    Laying the outside of your left leg on the floor, step your right foot over your left leg; your right knee will point at the ceiling.

3.    Exhale and twist toward the inside of your right thigh. Press your right hand against the floor behind you, setting your left upper arm on the outside of your right thigh. Pull your front torso and inner right thigh snugly together, pressing your inner right foot into the floor. Lean your torso back slightly, and continue to lengthen your tailbone into the floor. As you inhale, feel a little more lift out of the floor, and as you exhale, sit still and twist deeper. Stay in this position for one minute while taking controlled inhalations and long exhalations. Repeat with the other leg for the same amount of time.

Bridge Pose (Bandha Sarvangasana)

This pose opens your shoulders and hips, and strengthens your quadriceps.

1.    Lying supine on the floor, bend your knees and set your feet down directly underneath your knees with your heels as close to your sitting bones as possible.

2.    As you exhale, press your inner feet and arms into the floor, pushing your tailbone upward toward your pubis, firming your buttocks without feeling like you’re gripping too hard. Lift your hips off the floor into a bridge while keeping your thighs and inner feet parallel.

3.    Clasp your hands below your pelvis and extend through your arms to help you stay on the tops of your shoulders -- you want to press your forearms into the ground to avoid tensing your neck. Lift your buttocks until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.

4.    Keeping your knees directly over your heels, push them forward away from your hips and lengthen your tailbone toward the backs of your knees. Lift your chin slightly away from your sternum and, firming your shoulder blades against your back, press the top of your sternum toward your chin. Remain here for at least thirty seconds and release. Repeat two more times.

Reclining Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
Another excellent hip opener, this stretch targets both your hamstrings and hip flexors, and is great for easing the lower back.

1.    Lying on the floor, with both legs extended straight out, bend your left knee and draw your thigh into your torso, hugging it into your belly. Press through your right heel to keep your bottom leg grounded and active.

2.    Straighten your left leg up toward the ceiling, holding onto the back of your thigh or calf muscle, pressing your left heel directly upward. Broaden your shoulder blades so that you’re not gripping around your neck.

3.    As you press your heel upward, release the head of your thigh bone more deeply into your pelvis and draw your foot a little closer to your head. Take this slowly, as it will increase the stretch on the back of your leg. If you’re shaking a little, that’s fine, but the feeling should be manageable. Remain here at least 45 seconds and breathe deeply, then switch legs.

15 Things That’ll Make You Smile -- Instantly

If long workdays and a lack of time for yourself have you feeling down, try one (or more!) of these quick ways to immediately boost your mood and make you smile.

1. Get a foot massage. Targeting the reflexology points on the foot stimulates the release of endorphins -- feel-good hormones that can produce a feeling of euphoria. Unfortunately, getting frequent massages involves dropping a dozen not-too-subtle “Boy, do my feet hurt!” hints to your significant other -- and a grudging foot massage won’t exactly have you breaking into a satisfied grin. Instead, head to the nearest nail salon. That minute-long foot and calf massage that comes in between the pumice and the polish is pure bliss.

2. Change your ringtone to the sound of your niece laughing, or get your boyfriend to record the punch line to your favorite inside joke to signal a call.

3. Do something new. Take a different way home, reverse the route for your run, turn a cartwheel or do some inverted yoga poses. Viewing the world from a different angle can help you see the funny side of life.

4. Smell sweets. Certain aromas can instantly transport us to happier times. The scent of freshly baked apple pie wafting from a bakery reminds you of your grandmother’s kitchen. That hit of fruitier-than-nature-intended strawberry, cherry and sugar from bubble gum can take you back to fun times in grade school -- when smiles were plentiful, life was simpler and only your mom worried about your cavities.

5. Tune Pandora or your radio to some salsa or dance music, even for just a few minutes.

6. Play with a dog. Studies show that spending time with animals is an instant mood-lifter. Don’t have a dog? Log on to an Internet puppy cam, such as the Southeastern Guide Dog website.

7. Skip the status update. Instead of tweeting your memories, set a date to see your pals. Studies show that actual human interaction can improve not only your mood, but also your health.

8. Write a fan letter. Make like a teen and gush about your love for someone. (You don’t have to declare yourself Team Edward or Jacob.) Sending a note to your favorite author, the chef at your go-to restaurant -- even if that’s the corner pizzeria -- will make someone’s day … and yours too.

9. Love yourself. While you’re sharing your accolades, give some to yourself. Blow yourself a kiss in the mirror just before you leave the house in the morning. Or practice repeating a self-positive mantra any time you need a little boost.

10. Go fly a kite -- literally. Dutch researchers found that making upward movements, such as reaching toward the sky, produced positive memories and resulted in an improved mood. And a slew of studies have shown that just being in nature can boost your happiness factor.

11. Leave a (slightly) risque message on your partner’s cell phone. The naughty grin you’ll have as you leave it will only be matched by his beaming with excitement as he listens to it later.

12. Do a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes, doing nothing is all you need to feel like you’re experiencing a little indulgence. Take a sick day and go to the cinema, or spend an entire Sunday lounging around in cozy pajamas and slippers.

13. Pay it forward. Instead of silently grumbling about the brusque barista or rolling your eyes in exasperation at your grumpy cubicle-mate, find something good to say and pay them a compliment. The more befuddled they look as they try to work out why you’re being so nice, the bigger your smile will become.

14. Set your DVR to record a few episodes of your favorite old-school cartoons to cheer yourself up.

15. Smile. Often, faking it until you make it actually works.

Also read: “2012: Your Year of Passion”

The Surprising Trick to Never Getting Sick

Popping vitamin C by the handful in hopes of staving off the flu? New research shows the trick to staying well may be much simpler: daily meditation.

In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, researchers split up subjects into three groups: a control group, a group that exercised daily and a group that meditated daily. At the end of the trial, those people who meditated were sick much less and had missed fewer workdays than the exercisers (who also saw benefits) and the control group. The meditating group also experienced less severity of illness when they were sick in comparison to the control group.

Researchers are currently repeating the experiment to confirm that the findings were valid, but study author Dr. Bruce Barrett, an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Family Medicine, says these preliminary findings are promising.

“If the results turn out to be true, that means meditation gives a similar reduction rate to getting flu shots, which work for influenza-type illness -- only one of the hundreds of types of viruses that go through the community each year,” Barrett says. “If we reduced all the types of infectious disease at a similar rate, that would be huge.”

While researchers aren’t sure why exactly meditation and illness reduction were linked in the study, Barrett says that research shows people who are chronically stressed or otherwise psychologically unhealthy are much more likely to get sick -- so meditating may help for that reason.

If you’re looking to reap the benefits of meditation, Michael DeFrancisco, founder of Blessing Meditation, located in La Jolla, Calif., recommends signing up for a program that teaches effortless mindfulness techniques. “Most people who try to meditate on their own will quit after one session,” he says. That said, if you want to get a jump-start on your own, DeFrancisco suggests trying 10- to 15-minute meditation sessions, twice a day if possible. Here are some of his best meditation tips to get you going:

1. Eliminate outside distractions.
If you’re in a setting where you can feel your phone buzzing and see your dog trying to get your attention, you won’t be able to enter a state of relaxation. Find a comfortable place to sit (not lie down) away from technology, phones, pets, children and any other potential distractions you can control. “It doesn’t mean no noise, but the idea is to create an environment in which you won’t feel like you need to react to anything,” DeFrancisco says. “It will be a kind of sanctuary in your home.”

2. Ease into it.
Try to do everything gently when you take a break to meditate: Sit down gently, close your eyes gently, think gentle thoughts. “You don’t want to throw yourself into it, slam your eyes shut, and think, ‘Oh, I’m so irritated with my day,’” DeFrancisco says. “Your experience should be charming and graceful.” Entering a tranquil state will be that much more difficult if you start off on a tense note, so approach your meditation as you would stepping into a bubble bath -- not rushing out the door.

3. Don’t worry about turning off your thoughts.
The goal is to practice existing without expectations or anticipations (since they can turn into stressors) -- not to learn how to do absolutely nothing, DeFrancisco says. “The purpose is not to control, direct, manage or guide -- it’s just to be,” he says. “If you stay on a thought for a while, it’s fine. If it’s a fantasy, that’s fine. If it’s a practical to-do list, that’s fine. Just take it as it comes.” The key is to acknowledge thoughts rather than trying to control, judge, condemn or reject them.

4. Give yourself a cooling-off period.
After your 10- to 15-minute meditation is complete, don’t jump right back into your daily routine. Instead, lie on the floor for three minutes. “It will allow some residual stress to be eliminated,” DeFrancisco says, “so you don’t carry it with you afterward.”

Do you meditate? Share your experiences below or @Completely_You