Things are going downhill fast, and not in a thrilling ski racing way, but in a sinking, yucky way. You are feeling anxious, frustrated, and definitely stressed. What to do?
Here are six body-based practices you can do anywhere, anytime, to shift your mood and brain activity from doom and gloom to calm possibility. These are not a substitute for deeper processing, but they can get you back on track quickly so you can more effectively and constructively engage with life's bumps.
1. Breathe Deeply
One of the first things to happen when we feel stressed is our breath becomes shallow. You can instantly alter your body's reaction by taking three deep breaths. Studies show that deep breathing reduces anxiety and lowers blood pressure. It also aids in relaxing muscles while increasing energy.
This practice can help ease transitions during the day, such as between meetings, phone calls, and projects. The monk Thich Nhat Hanh recommends breathing deeply each time the phone rings. Imagine how relaxed you'd be if you did this with each text!
No doubt this is usually the last thing you want to do when you are freaking out. But smiling—even a fake one—not only changes your appearance, but your body chemistry as well. Like deep breathing, smiling lowers your heart rate along with stress and anxiety. The act of smiling signals to your body to release mood lifting endorphins and stimulates white blood cell production, thereby boosting your immune system.
But wait, that's not all!
Studies point to the other benefits of a grin including:
So when it doubt—or stress—smile!
3. Hand on Your Heart
You've heard the expression "to lose heart"? This practice has you "taking heart."
Place your right hand on your heart. Touch like this is calming and signals the body to release oxytocin, which is an antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. You will automatically take a deep breath or two as well.
With your hand on your heart, say something positive that contradicts the feeling you are having. It may be really simple like "Everything's OK," or "I can do this." If your mind is blank, try "Yes." As you are able, practice even greater self- compassion with the phrase: "May I be kind to myself in this moment and accept myself exactly as I am."
4. Look Up
Next time you are feeling down about something notice the position of your head. Chances are it is tilted down. By raising your head to level or angled a bit higher (chin up!) you will change your perspective immediately. When our heads are bowed we become more internal and less able to physically and psychologically take in the world around us. By raising our head and eyes, we open up to our surroundings including outside support, other possibilities, and a more expansive view.
One of our oldest and deepest responses to stress is to freeze. For these moments it's good to have a few go-to moves that break the body's paralysis. These can be as small as wiggling fingers, or as large as full body stretches. One way to quickly shift your energy is to gently (gently!) move your spine by rotating your torso side to side. This acts as a kind of reset button for your nervous system and is good to do throughout the day as a break. In fact, a little bit of movement every hour is better for relieving stress than waiting until the end of the day, or (yikes!) the weekend. As little as three minutes offers significant benefits.
6. Get Out in Nature (or at least the produce section)
Being in nature (if not lost) boosts serotonin and stimulates those parts of the brain responsible for love, empathy, and emotional balance. (Alas, urban environments stimulate fear and anxiety.) While you may pop out to your local forest on your off-hours, what can you do when time is short? Look for tendrils of nature where you can, including parks, fountains, florist shops, and yes, even the produce section of the grocery store. You will discover, if you don't already know, that it is hard not to feel cheery amongst vibrant piles of fruits and vegetables, or bouquets of beautiful flowers.
Now take a breath, or three. Smile. You are going to make it!
Try one or two of the practices above right now and note any changes.
Next time life pinches, try de-stressing immediately with a body-based practice. Select one beforehand, or have a list handy so you don't have to think about it too much in the moment. Be gentle with yourself as you take a few moments—or 3 minutes—to rebalance.
Note: These practices work whether the stress comes from work or encounters with loved ones.
Wishing you all a lovely and stress-free Thanksgiving!
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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