Do the following scenarios quicken your breath, increase your heart rate, and send an electrifying mix of adrenaline and cortisol surging through your veins?
- Late to work and hitting every red light, and on the one day you have that important meeting at 8 a.m.
- Slammed at work trying to meet a crucial deadline and everyone picks today to have a crisis that only you can help with.
- Have no idea how you made it through the work day, jaw is clenched, muscles tight, you want nothing more than to kick off your shoes and turn on the tube and your ex calls to ask if you can pick up the kids even though it’s not your day because something came up.
Welcome to the modern world.
The fight or flight response triggered by stress can wear down our bodies and psyches. Hypertension, high blood pressure, depression, lowered immunity, and anxiety disorders are some of the ravaging effects stress produces.
There is no way to avoid stress, short of escaping to an isolated mountaintop, spending the day fluctuating between meditation, prayer, and yoga poses. But it is essential for our mental and physical health that we know how to relax when we’re in the crushing grip of stress.
Stress doesn’t have to win. When we feel its effects coming on—increased agitation, muscles tightening, blood pressure rising—we can initiate a counter response. We can find ways to undo the effects of daily stresses, and refresh our minds and bodies. With a few strategies we can become better equipped to handle whatever chaos life throws our way with diplomacy, composure, and maybe even some humor.
- Breathe through it. Breathing deeply counteracts rising blood pressure by bringing the heart rate down. If next time you start to feel angry, anxious, or worn out you stop, focus on your breathe—inhaling and exhaling deeply and methodically. Do this for five full breaths and you will feel a sense of calm wash over you. Even that co-worker that hits every button connected to your last nerve will be powerless when you switch focus from your frustration to the sound and feel of air entering and exiting your diaphragm. Sit up straight, close your eyes and inhale slowly, deeply through your nose, feeling the breath start in your abdomen and travel up to the top of your head. Now feel and listen to your breath as it pushes out all the way down, until your diaphragm is empty. Repeat until you feel comfortable and at ease.
- Refresh with Mediation. A practical 3 minute breathing meditation can take the breathing technique to a higher level of relaxation. Meditation doubles the impact of breathing alone. The power of mediation is that it lets you recognize your negative thought patterns and release them, letting them dissolve and float away. The emotions and judgments that would usually attach themselves to these thoughts and take over your mind, mood, and actions, lose their control over you. If you can, lock your office door or escape to your car for a quick refresh. Sit up with your eyes closed and begin the breathing exercise, being aware and in the moment as each breath flows in and out of the body. As thoughts enter your mind, do not judge or react. Let them simply float right back out, the same way they drifted in. Do not take any thoughts personally; detach from any feeling about any thought that enters your mind during this time. Acknowledge the thought and send it on its way as you come back to your breath. You will probably notice your mind continually runs away with a train of thought— that is fine, remember, this is a break from any judgments. Just bring your attention back to your breath as soon as you are aware you’ve drifted into a string of thoughts. This is natural; it means you are meditating correctly. If it helps, you can repeat a positive affirmation, or mantra, to come back to every time your mind wanders. As you breathe out repeat to yourself: I breathe out worry and stress, and as you breathe in repeat something like: I breathe in calm and strength. Minds oscillate between thoughts, creating a jumbled sequence of endless chatter. So again, when you become aware that your mind has roamed, just gently, effortlessly, guide it back to full awareness of your breath. Why does this help? Mediation has been proven to decrease everything from depression to irritability, and of course, stress and anxiety. It works because it leads you to the life changing, empowering realization that thoughts and feelings are temporary. They are non-stop, they come and go, but you are detached from them and have the choice whether to react or to simply let them be. Just as you don’t have to engage with the thoughts and feelings of your own mind, you are free to react anyway you choose to the moods and behaviors of others. They can push your buttons if you give them permission, or you can disconnect the cord that attaches those buttons to your emotions and reactions. You can literally unplug from the stresses of life. With practice, when negative thoughts arise, they will dissolve away again much more easily, making you less erratic and reactionary and more unshakable and accepting.
- Cultivate Mindfulness. Mindfulness realizes that we go through unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even painful experiences but instead of running away from this truth, it embraces it with acceptance. It acknowledges the inevitable, so it can distinguish between two types of suffering: primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the inciting stressor, whether it’s your boss taking credit for a project when you did the work, or your car suddenly needing a thousand dollars in repairs right at Christmas. You can face the problem directly and admit that the situation sucks or is unjust. Secondary suffering is the raw emotion, fighting, fear and stress that flow from the original incident. You may feel angry and frustrated, overwhelmed and defeated, or a jumbled mess of emotions. But the key is that if you see these clearly, just as you did in meditation with your thoughts, it’s possible to allow the feelings of sadness, frustration or anger to exist without trying to make them go away. You don’t have to escape from initial suffering, but to avoid secondary suffering you have to realize that adding negative emotions to your situation is not going to help. Use that energy that you would normally use to scream, meltdown or freak-out to brainstorm solutions or to find the nugget of humor in the absurdity that is the human condition.
- Foster an Attitude of Gratitude. Mindset is one of the biggest indicators of happiness. The more you see what is good in your life, the less you will obsess over the unexpected challenges and disappointments that rear their nasty heads every now and then. When you consistently recognize the things that you are grateful for it turns on a switch that illuminates the value in the world, and your own life, more clearly. On the flip side of the pancake, the less you count your blessings the more obscured the wonderful things will be; you will pass them by because your focus will be fixated on what could’ve been, should’ve been, or how things are better for someone else than for you. And as you might expect, focusing on the negative generates stress.
- Get it Moving! It’s no secret that exercise is good for your health. And by now most of us know that the benefit of being active goes beyond physical fitness to increased energy, self-esteem, motivation and coping skills. Endorphins, hormones released during exercise, are nature’s anti-anxiety and anti-stress treatment. Best of all, the side effects are looking hot and feeling great. Have you read the side effects of those anxiety pharmaceutical meds? Those side effects alone are enough to stress you out. Best of all, exercise is proven to be more effective than medications in lowering stress and improving overall mood.
Chronic anxiety wreaks havoc on your body, mind, and emotional well-being. When you are in the throes of stress you are less likely to use good judgment, deal well with others, or think rationally. There are ways to channel stress into positive energy, like exercise, or to counter stress when it starts to overtake your mood, including breathing and meditation. Getting plenty of sleep and avoiding excess caffeine, alcohol, and sugar also have a significant positive impact in how you deal with stress. Find out what works for you and begin to see your life transform from a series of crises, to a manageable succession of vibrant moments.