Don't Feel Like Yourself? 8 Easy, Science-Backed Wellness Reset Tips

Everything that ailed me felt insurmountable—until I discovered that little tweaks added up to a health reset, improving my health, mood, and mind.

colorful illustration of a woman standing on a sandy beach with birds and flowers around her
Photo: Studio Grand-Père

The tears weren't spilling out of my eyes yet, but apparently, I was displaying the glassy, far-off stare my family had come to call "Mommy's about-to-cry face." My husband, Steve, sitting across from me at our kitchen table, held his fork halfway to his mouth. My then-16-year-old Olivia breathed, "Uh-oh, not again." And their twin, Sophia, whose humor I count on to defuse many a mommy meltdown, pretended to hit video on her phone and said dryly, "Hashtag family dinner, teeth-baring emoji."

Tonight's trigger? Olivia wasn't making eye contact with me. I tried to connect, but they were looking at their sister while answering my open-ended questions. (I'd planned them!) I felt that familiar tingle of despair and thought, "Liz, don't take it personally." I reminded myself that, developmentally, it was normal for teens to pull away from moms.

I was alarmed by the intensity and rawness of my reaction. These weren't the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone was stressed, scared, and sad. This was a year in. We were five feet away from each other all day. Shouldn't we be closer than ever?

How I Felt

The self-talk loop went something like this: "Liz, your neediness is just driving the kids further away. Act like you did when you were crushing on Tim Bulman in sixth grade—like you don't want to hang out with them with every fiber of your being. Wait, that's disordered and stupid. Ugh. Why can't you just chill? Because you want the cozy rituals everyone else is having. The cooking together, the lively and meaningful banter we'll all remember decades from now. Is a puzzle too much to ask for?"

My internal monologue was downright embarrassing. I needed help—the more holistic and professional, the better—because dinner emotions were just the tip of the iceberg.

Behind my cheerful appearance on Zoom calls, I felt sluggish, cranky, and creaky. I had lower back pain and an all-over tightness from sitting (didn't we all?), but I got truly alarmed when I started making an extravagant "oof" sound whenever I got into or out of a chair. I could set the clock by my 4 p.m. lull, marked by intense sugar cravings (to which I'd happily succumb), followed by an inability to keep my eyes open as the day approached dinnertime, everybody's least favorite hour. Fun.

Why can't we identify habits that result in health and happiness now, as well as less chronic disease later?

Then: "Stop complaining about minor aches. Think how the first responders must feel! Your family is healthy and safe," I'd continue, in the kind of unsupportive pep talk that would have made me run for the hills if it came from anybody but myself. Still, my truth was real. I felt depleted, and now routine life was looming, with its back-to-the-office presumption that I'd wear stiff clothing and remain alert for eight (plus) hours a day.

Oh, but there's more: I was getting breathless earlier in my workouts. And though I was fine with the 30 pounds I'd put on since my 30s (body confidence, yay!), I took my 10 additional pounds of pandemic weight personally. "You aren't exercising hard enough. Resist the cookies!" I'd tell myself.

Then I got an email from a place called Sensei asking if I'd like to hear how health tech can drive behavioral change unique to your mind and body. Did I want to meet? Boy, did I.

What Is Sensei?

In 2017, some years after the death of their mutual friend Steve Jobs, scientist and physician David Agus, MD, and technology mogul Larry Ellison asked: Why can't health care expand beyond treating disease and focus on preventing it? Using data (gathered from trackers, oxygen sensors, blood tests, and biofeedback sessions), why can't we identify problematic behaviors before they lead to disease? Better yet, why can't we identify habits that result in health and happiness now, as well as less chronic disease later? When you're a billionaire like Ellison, who owns most of a Hawaiian island, and a pioneering cancer doctor like Agus, you can.

Sensei is a wellness brand based in Santa Monica, California, that brings its philosophy to life at one of the world's most beautiful resorts: the Four Seasons on the Hawaiian island of Lānaʻi. (A second retreat location is now open in California.)

It's the nexus of dream destinations and data. The belief behind Sensei is that if people gain experiential awareness ("I felt X when I did Y") in a relaxing location, the sparks of change ignite. While everything, down to the language used in the self-compassion class, is science-backed, Sensei CEO, Kevin Kelly, emphasizes the value of escape. "If you give people an emotionally safe place and allow them to shed the veneer," he told me, "they will hear their best voice." It's standard spa-speak, to be sure, but amplified by the tech overlay, it was intriguing and made me confident the takeaways would stick.

The Process

Kelly invited me to Lānaʻi. Interested in learning, living, and relaying back to our readers the latest and most trusted thinking on fitness, nutrition, and mental health, I signed up for the Optimal Wellbeing Program, with all its bells, whistles, assessments, and guidance. I was immediately mailed a Whoop wrist band, which would record all my biometrics for three weeks, 24/7. The results would inform my program.

My guide, Kelly Georgiou, called to interview me about my goals for the retreat (level out the energy swings, lose the "oof," and drop some weight). She assembled my five-day wellness itinerary while I packed and Covid-tested for my visit.

On morning one, Georgiou and the team poked, prodded, and analyzed me. I was finger-pricked for cholesterol and blood sugar levels. My body fat, muscle mass, and hydration levels were assessed on a body composition analyzer. A 10-point fitness assessment had me rising from a cross-legged position, jumping vertically off a soft mat, squeezing a metal clamp, and running on a treadmill with a plastic hose strapped to my face until I reached a can't-talk-won't-talk anaerobic level. (That was the VO2 max assessment, a test of how much oxygen I use as I exercise.)

Georgiou synthesized my results with the data cache from Whoop: my resting and average heart rates, respiratory rate, sleep minutes, and heart rate variability (HRV), which is considered an important measurement of how well the body reacts to change. In a more relaxed state, the variation in time between heartbeats is high. The healthier the autonomic nervous system, the faster you can switch gears, demonstrating resilience and flexibility.

Then we talked—not only about the biometric data but also about what I knew about myself. How did various workouts or foods make me feel? What were my biggest stressors?

Results

First, I received the good news: High fives for superior muscle mass, flexibility, and grip strength; low triglycerides and blood sugar; and a gratitude practice that showed I was at least trying in the mindfulness arena. But my instincts had been right. Things were off.

My LDL cholesterol was high—not high enough to raise alarms at my annual physical, but not ideal: Let's get those globules lining some of my arteries now, while they're still little. I was also, apparently, a giant ball of stress. My HRV was 19; an optimal level is 60. This meant my body, heart, and mind appeared to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

The idea of doing less to gain more would be a recurring theme.

And the body fat number I'd been steeling myself for—whoa. I knew my shape had changed over the years, but I felt healthy and strong, thanks to years of early-morning strength workouts twice a week. As my pants became tighter, I didn't want to "diet"— because, teenagers—so my strategy to keep the weight from accumulating was to exercise longer and harder. "I've been eating dairy, meat, and sugar," I said, "but then, I just add another Peloton ride to the week to burn it all off. I guess it's not working." Then Laurel Dierking Washington, the lead wellness practitioner, said, "Actually, you're exercising too hard to lose weight."

Wait, what? She showed me the ranges for my gasping-into-the-tube test. My beloved high-intensity cycling classes were exacerbating the stress on my body and heart. Here it was: Evidence telling me, "Take it easier."

Later, in a biofeedback session with Sensei guide Marcus Washington, I saw how my mental health was suffering from the same thing—pushing too hard. When he guided me to breathe correctly, my neuromuscular system immediately changed. These people had printouts and data for days, and it was blowing my mind.

The idea of doing less to gain more would be a recurring theme. At the end of each assessment, I'd amble out behind the main hotel, snapping pictures of flowers as I made my way to the magnificent ficus forest. I'd sit on a bench to breathe and sometimes cry tears of relief.

I had worried I'd leave Sensei with a complex prescription for diet, exercise, and mind work. But again and again, I learned the benefits of small shifts in perspective. Here are a few of my takeaways. They might work for you too.

How You Move Matters

01 of 08

Me: Gaining weight, despite doing intense cardio four or five times a week.

My Reset: I should enjoy longer, slower exercise (walks with my dog, Milo!) and keep my heart rate in the fat-burning zone. For my height, weight, age, and VO2 max, that's between 110 and 130 beats per minute. I'll do a HIIT workout on the bike once a week to get the endorphin rush and increase my cardiovascular fitness.

How the Mind Can Help: I'd thought that if one HIIT day a week was good, four were even better! Wrong. I was only spending about three minutes in my fat-burning zone on my way to extremely hard. My HIIT training was exhausting and contributing to my 4 p.m. crash. If I mixed my push days with plenty of slower-and-steadier ones, those hard cardio sessions would strengthen my body instead of stressing it out.

02 of 08

Me: Suck in my belly and breathe deeply into the chest.

My Reset: Relax the abdomen, so I inhale with my diaphragm deeply into my lungs, expanding the stomach and pelvic area like a balloon. Deeper breathing throughout the day will release my body from its state of stress— and gradually get that HRV to rise.

How the Mind Can Help: So many of us—women, in particular—breathe from the chest without realizing it. Humans are meant to breathe from the belly, the way animals and babies do in a relaxed state. How'd we go so wrong?

Partly through cultural conditioning that flat bellies are desirable. (Blame people like me, coauthor of Flat Belly Diet! In my defense, the book was about losing the dangerous visceral fat that accumulates around the organs—but would you be drawn to a book called Lose Visceral Fat for Greater Longevity? I thought not.)

A heat map showed my neck, throat, and chest colored bright red, a result of muscle stress in the wrong part of the body from this improper, shallow breathing. What a revelation. What a relief.

03 of 08

Me: Cushion sore feet and coddle a painful back.

My Reset: Forget the insoles and fight the fascia, the connective tissue that covers the body's organs, muscles, bones, and nerve fibers, providing internal structure. Fascia's nerves make it almost as sensitive as skin. When stressed, the fascia tightens up. The solution is to break up this membrane, not avoid it.

How the Mind Can Help: Think of your feet as your body's foundation—one wrapped in a taut coating, like the skin on a chicken breast. Then do this life-changing thing: Stand barefoot and roll the bottom of each foot around a lacrosse ball for one minute a day. When it hurts (it will), press harder. Blasting the fascia to release tension leads to better flexibility in the ankles, calves, and hamstrings—and, by chain reaction, relief from that back pain!

How You Nourish Yourself Matters

04 of 08

Me: Calorie and sugar obsessed.

My Reset: Focus on fiber and "foods that grow from the ground," as Sensei wellness guide and nutritionist Nikola Hamilton so memorably put it.

How the Mind Can Help: Hamilton described fiber as a broom, sweeping food through the digestive system and ushering energy and antioxidants where they need to go. Without the broom, food either sits in the gastrointestinal tract or gets released immediately as glucose, which is why simple carbs, like white bread and juice, cause energy (and mood) to spike and crash. When we eat a simple carb, the body releases free radicals.

"A free radical without an antioxidant added to it creates an inflammatory response," Hamilton explained. "This causes a little blip of inflammation that can last about three hours, which is no big deal if it happens occasionally. But if it's meal after meal, what do you think happens?" Chronic inflammation, increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. I want to flood my body with little brooms, a rainbow of friendly antioxidant witches. But that doesn't mean forgoing cupcakes.

05 of 08

Me: Food is either fuel (good) or indulgence (bad).

My Reset: Accept that 4 p.m. lull. Food serves many purposes. It can promote health and tame hunger. It can be celebratory (champagne), soothing (M&M's), or a way to connect (wine and cheese with friends). We should just let it be what we need at that moment.

I can do this by taking an attentive pause as I walk to the pantry on auto-pilot: I might need some cookies to get through my afternoon call with the boss. Or I might not. Giving myself a pause makes the choice intentional.

How the Mind Can Help: Think about nutrition not as a good-or-bad binary but as a continuum. Imagine a string from the bottom left corner of the room to the top right: The more fiber- and antioxidant-rich foods I add to my plate, the higher I rise on the string.

Eating a tier of Milano cookies doesn't send me sliding to the bottom. I just roll back a little. If my next meal is full of fiber and antioxidants, I go right back up. Fiber will also make my hunger more manageable, and I'll be less likely to dive for the Sunchips.

I might need some cookies to get through my afternoon call with the boss. Or I might not. Giving myself a pause makes the choice intentional.

Rest Matters

06 of 08

Me: Breathing is like clockwork.

My Reset: Deep, intentional breaths slow the heart rate. Pair them with soothing thoughts, and your neurological system resets, biofeedback guide Washington explained. He hooked me up to a biofeedback device, attaching sensors to my earlobes and chest. On a monitor, we saw my heart rate. Washington asked me to close my eyes, then do whatever I'd normally do to relax. I did some box breathing—in for four counts, hold for four, out for four, hold for four.

Then he asked me to breathe to the motion of a wave rising and cresting in equal measure. I should keep breathing to the wave while thinking of someone for whom I felt extreme gratitude. Then Washington showed me what my heart had been doing.

During the box breathing, there were tall, sharp spikes (indicating stress). During the wave section, smoother, shallower peaks (my nervous system was more relaxed). And when I added loving thoughts, there were tall, rounded rises.

RELATED: 5 Mindfulness Breathing Exercises You Can Do Anywhere, Anytime

How the Mind Can Help: I was floored to see that the wave breathing was more calming than the "relaxing" box breathing. But most importantly, the biofeedback session revealed the sweet spot where mind and body meet. I shamed myself for all those yoga classes where I sneaked out of the "napping" part at the end—which brings us to our next shift.

07 of 08

Me: That unforgiving mantra of mine to "suck it up, buttercup."

My Reset: I should try to show myself the same compassion I'd show others who are experiencing difficulty. Mindfulness and meditation teacher Nico Akiba, who led the self-compassion workshop, cited research showing that shame affects the learning centers of the brain.

How the Mind Can Help: "We pick up this learned self-criticism when we're young," Akiba said. He asked the class to think about the parent or teacher who told our child selves not to be upset—to get back up when we fell. Through positive self-talk ("It's OK to be sad"), we can retrain our brains to default to self-kindness. Sounds lovely. Working on it.

A New Approach to Family Dinner

08 of 08

Me: Projection and predictions.

My Reset: Set intentions. Try to enjoy.

How the Mind Can Help: As Washington pointed out, my relationship with my kids is heavily influenced by "expectations—preconceived ideas, comparisons, critiques." I was devastated to hear this. He challenged me to head into dinner with "intentions—openness, curiosity, awareness." After he said this, I slumped in my chair, feeling my entire body relax. Once more, my eyes filled with tears.

Epilogue

When I returned home, it occurred to me that family dinners happened at the hour when I was depleted, sugar-crashing, and mentally spent. I was showing up to the most important part of the day (for me, anyway) as my worst self. I had two choices: I could move, rest, and nourish myself in a way that readied me for relaxation and connection. Or I could let go of the idea that dinners are the end-all-be-all and connect in a way that better suited our family. I decided to try both.

Meanwhile, I tweaked my weekly fitness schedule to be more forgiving, allowing time for my body to rest and recover. I set "breathing" alarms on my phone three times daily. And I paired my 4 p.m. box of Good & Plenty with a fiber-and-antioxidant-rich orange. The energy dips have leveled, I feel nourished by what I eat and how I move, and I lost eight pounds within six weeks after my return.

But the seismic shift came when I considered the family dinner with clarity and compassion. I realized that Sophia and Olivia were chattiest around lunchtime when the hardest part of their school day was behind them (they were remote that entire year) and they were relaxed and munching on something casual. I started to hang around the kitchen every day at noon. No biggie. I'll wipe counters and chime in. Nothing to see here.

Maybe I'd bring up a topic, but usually not. I'd simply circle their side of the table, hand on a shoulder. Or sometimes I'd just listen and laugh—and let them make fun of me: "You two are hilarious," I'd say. "I love how you make each other laugh."

So we aren't the Gilmore Girls. But at least Mommy's lip has stopped quivering.

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