Simple Practice for Stressful Times

In times of crisis it is especially important to maintain a clear mind and a centered approach to decision-making. Yet stress itself can reduce our capacity for creative problem solving and straight thinking. Dealing with stress and maintaining balance in our bodies, emotions and minds is a contribution to successful living during difficult times.

Buddha image by Pat Shallenberger

Image by Pat Shallenberger

Scientists are identifying precisely how our brains register stress and the effect this has on our functioning. Thought is a chemical movement in the brain, which leads to direct responses in the rest of the body. When the brain registers stress or danger, there are chemical responses, which increase our ability to focus or to move quickly.

These are helpful in the short term but a period of sustained anxiety can over activate these responses and lead to impaired cognition and to physical depletion. In other words, unless we do something to balance the effects of ongoing stress, we will be more prone to physical illness and mental fatigue.

Scientific study is also distinguishing the actions that balance the effects of stress. Research supports the idea that good habits such as eating nutritious food, limiting alcoholic consumption, engaging in moderate physical exercises and getting appropriate amounts of sleep are significant factors in counteracting the negative effects of ongoing stress. There are other effective, stress-reducing behaviors that you may not know. Here are a few that require less than 5 minutes and can be done sitting at a desk or riding on a subway. Incorporated consistently into the workday, these practices can improve and maintain both physical health and mental function.

Conscious Breathing
“Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have” says James Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “When you bring air down into the lower portion of the lungs, where oxygen exchange is most efficient, everything changes. Heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms. Breathing this way also gives people a sense of control over their body and their emotions that is extremely therapeutic.”

Sitting comfortably, notice your feet as they meet the floor. Consciously relax your jaw and allow your lips to open a bit so that air can move through your mouth as well as your nose. Watch the pathway of your breathing as it moves into your body and flows out again. After a minute or two, lengthen your exhale, allowing all the breath to leave. Rest for a moment at the bottom of your breath. Now, allow plenty of time for breath to come in and then release, again taking the time to exhale slowly and completely. Don’t force deep breathing. Simply allow more time for both the inhale and the exhale to be full and complete. Continue this pattern for 8-10 breaths. Finally, rest for a moment as you again notice your feet contacting the floor. You can return to this breathing as a way to center and reduce stress at anytime during the day and just before sleeping at night.

Sanctuary Visualization
Positive visualization and the relaxation it produces have been shown to improve memory, reduce hypertension and generalized anxiety, strengthen the immune system and improve cognitive function.

After reviewing these directions, take a moment to close your eyes and relax. Feel the way your body is moving with your breathing. Now recall a physical place or situation that is connected to good memories for you. You may know this place from anytime in your life, including childhood. It may be someplace you stayed often or a place you visited just once. The important point is to focus on a location where you felt or now feel safe, secure, relaxed or happy.

Visualize this place. Remember the details: sights… sounds… lighting and colors… smells… specific objects or people. Remember how you felt there, both physically and emotionally. If possible, allow the memory to bring some of those same feelings into your body now. You might call this bringing the past into the present. The more you enter the memory, the more you will be able to bring the state of relaxation and pleasure you experienced at that time into your body now. The brain can learn to access these positive feelings through associations with the past. Repetition is the key to building the neural pathways that allow easy access through memory to feelings of well-being. Try doing this once a day for at least two weeks, for a few minutes each time, to build the neural pathways.

Gratitude
By intentionally generating thoughts that relax and energize the nervous system we can actively counter the effects of anxiety producing thoughts. Research has shown that people who practice gratitude daily have more vitality, are less likely to get ill and are more effective in reaching life goals. Here is a simple exercise to build these positive pathways in the brain and establish the corresponding feelings.

Take some time to review your day and recognize the people who did something to benefit you, whether through a simple gesture or in a major way. As you think of a person and their action, inhale and feel the effect of that support. As you breathe out, imagine sending them thanks as you release your breath. This practice can be extended to include gratitude to other sources of benefit, such as the food we eat, the warmth of the sun and other aspects of nature, beautiful we encounter – whatever invokes our gratitude.

Some other simple activities that have been proven to create positive changes in the mind/body system are:

  • Petting an animal: in 2-3 minutes the body releases many “feel good” hormones and suppresses some of the stress hormones. Research shows that the animal gets some of the same benefits. A win-win situation.
  • Laughter has wonderful effects on the brain chemistry and releases the diaphragm, increasing the amount of oxygen in each breath.
  • The mind clearing practice of noticing one thing fully, one moment at a time is very centering. This can be organized by giving yourself the mental cue, “At this moment, I am noticing….”

In times like these it is easy to be swept up by gloomy thoughts and frightening images of failure. Living with uncertainty is a challenge for us all. These simple practices offer ways to strengthen our body/mind and reverse the debilitating effects of worry, fear and tension. They require no special equipment or circumstances. Any one of these exercises will be supportive and, by using them all together, they can build a sense of positive possibility. Most importantly, the benefit is increased when we use them consistently. Like tending a garden, it’s a little bit of attention every day that helps the seeds grow.

Written by Christine Price, this article was published in ACHIEVE, a Japanese business magazine, Spring 2009