Take a deep breath. Do it, right now. Breathe deep in through your nose, down into your abdomen and feel your belly expand as your chest simultaneously rises; then exhale slowly through your mouth. Feel different? Breathing deeply slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and helps deliver oxygen to your body. Conversely, when we are experiencing stressful situations, our breathing tends to become more shallow and can lead to reduced levels of oxygen obtained from each breath. The next time you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try taking one slow, deep breath. Or two, or three. Sometimes, all we need is to take a few seconds out of our day to remind ourselves to breathe.
Just a few minutes of daily meditation can reduce anxiety and make one more resilient to stress. Meditation is a practice, and it can be a frustrating practice for the novice. If you have found that you are unable to simply, “let you thoughts drift by like clouds in the sky,” try this meditative tool: Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes and start to breathe deeply, mentally counting a full breath-in-breath-out circuit as “One”. Your second breath is “Two”. Continue this process until you reach ten, then start back over at one. If you continue counting past ten, you may start focusing too much on the counting process. However, by only counting to ten and then returning to one, we hit a point where we are no longer actively thinking about counting. It’s just enough focus to draw your attention away from other distracting thoughts, but subtle enough to allow your thoughts to fall into a meditative rhythm. A meditation practice can start with as little as one minute a day. After a week, try adding another minute. And remember, like any activity or skill set, practice improves the ease and quality of your experience.
The adage tells us that laughter is the best medicine, and modern research has shown us that laughter is indeed therapeutic. According to the Mayo Clinic, laugher can induce physical changes in your body such as stimulating organs by increasing your intake of oxygen-rich air, releasing endorphins that affect mood and pain, activating and relieving your stress response, and soothing tension by stimulating circulation. It can even improve your immune system via it’s stress-reducing effects. It’s also worth noting that fake laughter inevitably leads to real laughing. The next time you are stuck in traffic or waiting at your fifth red light when you’re already late, just try laughing and see how your disposition improves.
Sometimes we aren’t able to physically remove ourselves from a stressful situation, so just pretend! Close your eyes (if possible) and imagine a place where stress doesn’t exist. This place can be real or imagined, but is a place where you mentally travel. Common visualization destinations include places in nature such as a sunny beach on a tropical island or a lush forest in the mountains, or places from our memories such as the playground as a child or curled up watching a movie with a loved-one. Mentally traveling to our safe, stress-free environments can provide the brief respite we need to get through a long day.
When life hands us stressful situations, sometimes we simply need to step away to aid our mental health. This could be as simple as taking a break from a stressful project by getting out of your office or stepping away from your computer. Physically getting outside provides additional benefits: Studies have linked low levels of Vitamin D with worsened mood and decreased cognitive function. Getting outside for a few minutes of sun exposure and some fresh air can do wonders for your mood and overall stress level. As always, be cautious with sun exposure, each person’s proper length of sun exposure will be different, and is determined by your skin color (lighter skin has less protective melanin, but produces Vitamin D at faster rates), as well as the season.
We all know that exercise is necessary for a healthy cardiovascular system and helps to maintain a healthy body mass index, but did you know that exercise also reduces stress? Physical activity increases your body’s production of endorphins, which are your brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters. In addition to elevating your mood, endorphins are also your body’s natural pain-relievers. Even a two-minute break to march in place at your desk or take a couple flights of stairs can be enough to feel a palpable shift in your body and mood.
A Swedish proverb states, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow”. One of our greatest limitations is the belief that we are alone in our life experience, while wallowing alone in our fears or frustrations or sadness can lead to feelings of isolation. By connecting with loved ones, we are able to process through our struggles and seek direction. Finding connection improves our overall view on life and reminds us that we have a place to turn when life seems challenging.
Prepare a Cup of Tea
Some studies suggest that Chamomile tea may have anti-anxiolytic and anti-depressive qualities; however, even the act of making a cup of tea can have a meditative effect on the body. Filling the kettle, putting it to boil, listening for the water, placing the tea in the mug or teapot, pouring the water, waiting the allotted steep time, removing the tea, and then, finally, getting to enjoy the fruits of your labor – it creates a process that allows you to flow through an activity mindlessly, and then you get a cup of tea at the end of it! If you are preparing tea for the evening, ensure that it is a caffeine-free tea (note: black, oolong, green, and white teas all have varying amounts of caffeine).
Do you have a method for transitioning from your work-filled day to your friends and family-filled evening? By establishing a post-work decompression routine, you can consciously shift away from the stressful distractions of your day towards a relaxing and rejuvenating evening. Your routine can include any of the other suggestions on this list, as well as activities like changing into comfortable clothes, taking a shower, or simply washing your face. Personally, my decompression routine involves spending five minutes to wash and massage my feet. Since I am on my feet all day, they appreciate a little extra love in the evening. If I still feel wound-up after that, I will take a few minutes to breathe deeply while rolling my neck (allowing my head to dip and then slowly swing side-to-side), and perform self-massage on my neck and shoulders.