Many people awake in the morning to an alarm clock, jump in the shower, slug down some coffee and grain-filled breakfast, rush to a bus or train, or jump in the car to sit in traffic to get to a job. We then work all day at jobs that require us to be on task constantly. Once the work day is finally done, we commute back home, maybe fit some exercise in, make dinner for ourselves and our family, try and have some quality time with our kids and our partners. We then either vegetate watching television or get on the computer to check social media to interact with friends, shop or do more work before the day is done and we finally go to bed. Once in bed, if our stress levels and cortisol are too high we may not be able to fall asleep because our mind is constantly going or if we fall asleep okay, we awake at 2:00 AM and cannot get back to sleep due to our mind constantly ruminating on past or upcoming events. Before you know it the alarm clock is going off and it’s time to start the whole cycle again.
Many people who are living the life described above do not think there is any time in their day to change the cycle. But, with focused effort and being dedicated to some stress management practice, our lives do not need to continue feeling like an uncontrollable hamster wheel. The first thing one has to do is to take charge of their time. Either on paper or in your cell phone calendar, schedule the hours in your day. Put in everything you are required to do and how much time it will take. Do this on Sunday evening for the entire week. Once you have outlined or scheduled all of your required activities for the week and how much time they will take; now it is time to schedule the things you want to do for yourself. This may include a date with your partner, time to play with your children, 15-20 minutes to go for a walk, or 30-40 minutes to do high intensity weight resistance exercise 2-3 times per week. But, if you schedule these things into your life and make designated time for them, then you will start to feel empowered and this alone will help balance your stress and your mood.
Once you take control of your schedule and your life and you are finding success and improvements, it’s time to add a daily stress reduction practice of some sort. This does not have to take an enormous amount of time and no matter how busy a person is; there is time for 5-10 minutes of a daily stress reduction practice. This also does not have to be a complex or demanding routine. It can be and is as simple as taking 5 minutes to sit quietly and breathe. There are numerous different breathing exercises that one can do to reduce their stress and balance quickly their parasympathetic nervous system and their flight or fight feelings. One example, is to breathe in for a count of five, then hold your breath for a count of six, and finally exhale for a count of seven. Inhalation actually enhances the sympathetic or stress related nervous system and exhalation enhances the parasympathetic or relaxation nervous system. This is why you inhale for a shorter time than you exhale. Spend 5 minutes each day practicing this 5-6-7 breathing.
Another breathing technique is alternate nostril breathing. Place your thumb and index finger of one hand up on either side of your nose. Now, pinch closed one nostril and inhale through the one open nostril for a count of five, then pinch both nostrils closed and hold the breath for a count of five. Next, release the opposite nostril and exhale through the one open nostril for a count of five. This completes one cycle. To start again, take a breath in through the same open nostril for a count of 5, then pinch both nostrils closed for a count of 5 and finally un-pinch and open the opposite nostril and exhale for a count of 5. Continue alternating this cycle for a total of 3-5 minutes. Breathing techniques like the ones described here have shown in studies to decrease people’s perception and reaction to stress. Within one month of doing a breathing practice daily moods improved and people reported feeling more calm and alert and in control of their circumstances.
Having a variety of stress management activities in your self-treatment tool kit is also a beneficial thing. So, trying different stress reducing activities and finding the ones that you like the most and want to do on a regular basis is also empowering. Here are some suggestions:
- Be in Nature: There is no more calming and supportive environment than nature. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and crowds, cell phones and computers and being alone in nature where you can experience the supportive universal force and connect with yourself is one of the most calming and powerful healing things anyone can do for themselves. I just returned from a week vacation in Baxter State Park in Maine and once you enter this State Park there is no cell phone service and no electricity. We stayed in a cabin on a gorgeous woodland pond with friends. We slept and walked and fished and played all week long out in nature with no manmade distractions. Nothing rejuvenates the soul or balances the nervous system more than spending time in the woods like this. But, one does not have to go as remote as this to experience the calming effects of nature. Go for a walk in your local park or on the beach and sit for a few minutes just watching and observing the birds, the trees, and the wind. You will consciously feel the difference in yourself afterward.
- Quiet the Mind: Our minds and our egos like to run our lives and be in control, but they typically also add to our stress. So, it is helpful to quiet the mind by giving it something to do other than ruminate. The breathing exercises described above are one exercise to give the mind a task of counting while you are breathing and this occupies the mind and quiets it from its ruminations. Another technique is to do specific things in your day Mindfully. For example, eating. When you sit down to a meal or at least when you eat a snack during each day; be extremely mindful of the activity. Really Look at the food you are about to eat, focus on it and notice what it looks like: it’s shape, it’s color, it’s texture. Then pick it up and smell it. Take notice of what it feels like and how it smells. Then, take a bite and Mindfully notice what it feels like in your mouth and what it feels like to chew it. What flavors and tastes are your experiencing? Finally, notice as you swallow what it feels like as it travels to the back of your mouth and down into your body. Most of us never take notice of our eating in this way. Not only can it quiet your mind by giving your mind a task other that ruminating, it also will enhance the eating experience immensely.
- Laugh Every Day: One of the most healing, cortisol reducing and calming things to do is laugh. Laughing increases endorphins and reduces cortisol and adrenaline. Laughter also dilates blood vessels and boosts the production of antibodies which bolster the immune system. We all can find something in entertainment that we find funny that can make us laugh and when we determine what that is we should allow it to help us laugh on a daily basis. But, what can be even more healing is to laugh at ourselves. When you are going through your day and you do the little stupid things that most of us do, don’t beat yourself up about them; laugh at yourself instead and make light of your own shortcomings. None of us is perfect so just face that fact, cut yourself some slack and have a good laugh the next time you put on two different colored socks.
- Dance Like Nobodies Watching: In an earlier blog I focused on exercise and movement to reduce your stress, but here I am talking about really letting loose and moving to some music in any and all ways your body and your being feels like moving. Sometime when you are home alone, put on some of your favorite music and throw caution to the wind and just start moving to the music slowly at first and experience how good it feels. Then keep loosening up and eventually just let your body and being move however it wants and feel how liberating this is. If emotions come up, let them flow through you and let them be expressed and released as you dance. By the time you are done you will feel invigorated, cleansed, and liberated.
- List What you are Grateful for Everyday: Appreciation or Gratitude are universally positive feelings that promote health and wellbeing. So many things happen in our day that can annoy or stress us out and can grab our attention and keep us in a negative energy space. One of the best ways to counter negative feelings and promote positive energy is to take a moment each morning when you first wake up or each night when you first lay down to list in your mind the things you are grateful for. This could be as basic as having the ability to put food on the table and clothes on our back; or, as elaborate as listing appreciation for the loved ones in your life. It can be as basic as being grateful for the ability to wake up to see another day or as complex as having been born with the intelligence to go to college and get a chosen level of education and training. We tend to give far too much attention to the negative things that happen in our lives and forget to give thanks and appreciation for the positive things no matter how big or small they may be. So, take a moment each day to identify what you are grateful and appreciative for in your life. Before you know it you will have a more calm, balanced and happy state of mind.
In future blogs I will discuss how technology from The Heart Math Institute can change a person’s physiology with breathing and mindfulness practices. I will also discuss shamanism or energy medicine and how having a spiritual or energetic practice can help balance your stress.