It seems like everything you read about your health tells you how bad stress is. It’s true that stress is bad for your heart, makes you gain weight around the middle, decreases your immunity, messes with your digestion, and causes you to lie awake at night staring at the ceiling. You get the message; you’ve got to get your stress under control.
Understanding that you need to do something to de-stress is the easy part. Taking steps to deal with the stressful situations in your life is much harder. The way I see it, you have two choices. The first is to deal directly with what’s causing your stress; quit your miserable job, learn to say no, prioritize, or stop taking on extra (stressful!) projects. This is easier said than done—clearly there are situations in your life that you can’t change or control.
So, your second choice in dealing with the stress is to take a little time to add some calm into your life. That’s right, meditate! It may sound exotic, but the reality is that anything you do to calm that wild stream of thoughts running through your mind (the Chinese call it Monkey Mind) is a kind of meditation.
If you have never meditated, let me clear up a couple of myths right away. First, you don’t need to don flowing robes and sit cross legged on a hard floor to meditate—it can be done almost anywhere, and you can wear what you want. Second, you can get the beneficial effects from meditation in as little as three minutes. Researchers have found that the relaxation response (the opposite of fight or flight) kicks in after just a few minutes of meditation. And third, there’s really no wrong way to meditate—you don’t need any secret words or funky positions.
Here are a few meditative exercises to get you started. Remember, whatever you do is good—there’s no such thing as bad meditating.
- Mind clearing. Get comfortable sitting or lying down. Take a deep breath or two and then breathe comfortably, focusing on each breath. With each inhalation repeat a word or sound of your choosing. I like “calm”, but you can use “one”, “Om”, or whatever you like. You can even choose a two syllable word like “relax” and inhale to the first syllable, “re”, and exhale to the second syllable, “lax”. As you focus on your word or sound, your racing thoughts will recede. If thoughts come into your mind, just let them pass on through and out. Continue for at least three minutes, obviously longer is more relaxing.
- Your happy place. We’ve all heard the jokes about going to your happy place. The reality is that when you visualize yourself in a calm and beautiful place, your brain acts the same way and releases the same chemicals as if you were actually in a calm and beautiful place. So get comfortable, close your eyes and picture yourself in a wonderful place. What do you see? Fill in the visual details of your chosen place, even what’s behind you. What do you feel? Is there sand in between your toes or a cool breeze blowing across your body? What are the particular smells of this place? What do you hear? Silence? Beautiful music? Birds singing? Fill in as many details as you can, and spend ten or 15 minutes visiting this place in your mind. Your brain won’t know that you’re stuck at the office.
- Progressive relaxation. This one involves tightening, then releasing groups of muscles from head to toe. Begin by getting comfortable—lying down is a little better for this particular technique. Begin with the muscles in your scalp and forehead. Tighten them for a second or two, and then relax. Move on to the muscles in your entire face; tighten, then relax. From there, tighten and relax your neck muscles. Continue working your way down your body, tightening and relaxing all your muscles. When you have finished with your toes, picture (and feel) your entire body so relaxed that you’re melting. Give yourself as much time as you like in this relaxed state, then slowly come back—you’ll feel both calmer and refreshed.
- Use your breath. Mindful breathing is an easy and quick way to lower stress. Sit or lie down and spend a few minutes breathing slowly. Pay attention to each inhalation and exhalation. Also pay attention to the spot that rises and falls with each breath. If you’re taking short, shallow breaths from your upper chest, slow it down and try to breathe from your belly.
- Get moving. While physical activity isn’t exactly meditation, it is a great way to let off a little steam and decompress after (or before) a stressful day. It may feel good to smack a tennis ball or a golf ball, but you don’t have to kill the world. A walk after dinner can do the trick, too. I know this may feel like one more thing you have to do, but even ten to twenty minutes of moving your body will also move some stress. Be sure to pick an activity that is fun or at least enjoyable.