If you feel that stress is affecting your physical health and emotional well-being, you’re not alone. An estimated 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues and ailments, and this is certainly what I see in my medical practice. But don’t let this information increase your stress levels, for there are simple practices that you can bring into each day to feel less stressed—and more calm, centered, and happy.
Meditation is a powerful antidote to stress. In the inner quiet of meditation, the body decreases its production of so-called stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, while increasing neurotransmitters associated with calm and well-being, including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. A regular meditation practice is one of the most powerful tools for improving overall health. Recent studies are confirming that with even a single meditation, you “turn on” or upregulate genes associated with total well-being, and “turn off” or down-regulate genes that are related to illness and disease. In addition to the physical health benefits, regular meditators experience more happiness, less anxiety, and greater feelings of connection and purpose.
Try this: The ideal meditation practice is 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, and 20 to 30 minutes again in the evening; however, meditating for just 10 minutes daily will make a huge difference in your life and stress levels. Here is a guided meditation you can try right now: So Hum Meditation.
Many ancient healing traditions incorporate deep breathing into a daily routine to cultivate calm and balance. Studies show that deep breathing can immediately help you shift out of the stress or “fight-or-flight” response, and into the relaxation response. With deep breathing, the body and mind slow down and you instantly feel stress dissipate. In fact, with modern biofeedback tools you can actually see an improvement in heart-rate variability (a sign of reduced stress) within seconds of deep breathing.
I recommend 3 to 5 minutes of deep breathing, twice daily, and any time during the day when you become aware of feeling stressed. If you have a morning meditation practice, which is highly recommended, do your deep breathing just before you meditate.
Try this: Close your eyes and breathe in slowly through your nose. Your belly should rise gently with each inhalation. Imagine that you are directing the breath to any areas of stress in your body, or simply feel the sensation of the breath in the lungs. At the peak of your inhalation, pause for a moment; then slowly exhale. Keep breathing until you feel centered and calm.
Learn more:The Mind-Body Healing Benefits of Pranayama
Regular movement is one of the best ways to dissipate the energy of stress in your body. When you walk briskly or do other forms of exercise, your body releases many neurotransmitters that lead to improved mood and a greater sense of well-being. These neurotransmitters include endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Some research suggests that improvements in mood are also due to increased blood circulation to the brain.
More good news! You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to decrease your stress. By taking a 15-minute walk, you will experience immediate benefits, including greater feelings of calm and energy. While some people argue that nothing can be accomplished with a short walk, you can judge for yourself.
Try this: Commit to taking a 15-minute walk after lunch, or at the end of your day, and see what happens to your stress levels. Of course, when you can fit in a longer walk, go for it.
More and more studies are confirming the importance of regular, restful sleep for combatting the negative effects of stress and increasing total well-being. Getting restful sleep gives you the opportunity to repair and restore the mind-body system. With good sleep, you have better emotional regulation, stronger immunity, reduced pain, and decreased risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Poor sleep, whether in amount or in quality, is the precursor to many disease processes. A lack of restful sleep also disrupts your neurochemistry and can lead to worsening anxiety, depression, and pain.
Try this: One important way to improve your sleep is to align your sleeping times with your circadian rhythms, which are your body’s own natural rhythms of mental and physical activity. These rhythms are aligned with nature’s rhythms, which means that when the sun rises, your body is naturally more awake and alert. When the sun sets, your body prepares for sleep by increasing the production of natural chemicals such as melatonin. You will enjoy more restful, restorative sleep if you are in bed by about 10:00 p.m., and wake up by 6:00 am. During this sleep time, your body can process all of the foods, experiences, and energy of the day and “digest” it, so you don’t carry it over into the next day. Of course, since often it is stressful feelings that interfere with sleep, using the other practices discussed in this article will help you reduce stress, and therefore, improve your sleep.
Reduce Excessive Stimulation
You live in such an overstimulated world that you sometimes may not even notice how much you’re bombarded with noise, information, music, bright lights, and other distractions. Now, it’s hard to enjoy even a moment of silence when you’re filling up your car since many gas stations have installed videos that automatically turn on with a loud commercial when you insert a credit card. The world is vying for your attention, and all of the information entering through your senses requires processing, which can lead to an increased stress response.
Try this:By making a conscious choice to reduce unnecessary stimulation, you can stop the sensory overload and create greater calm in your mind-body system. Pay attention to how you feel when you spend time exposed to different forms of stimulation. If you find yourself feeling jangled after shopping at a mall or watching a violent movie, eliminate or limit these experiences in your life. Instead of leaving yourself at the mercy of your electronic devices, take steps to control their interruptions. For example, turn off your automatic email alert and the ringer on your phone, and set up regular times to check your messages instead.
These are just a few suggestions for reducing sensory overload. Consider your environment at home, work, and anywhere you regularly spend time, and start making conscious choices to reduce the unnecessary and stress-provoking stimulation. This will help you experience more joy, balance, and peace of mind.
Do Less and Be More
In this fast-paced and often manic society, it’s easy to focus too much on doing and not enough on being. Even though you are a human “being,” and not a human “doing,” the ego mind often takes over and defines success and happiness by what you accomplish. However, if you look around, you will find that the people who do less and let themselves be more actually seem less stressed. They appear more calm, peaceful, and happy. And if you could look into their bodies, you would see that they have fewer symptoms of chronic stress than their more harried counterparts, including less inflammation, greater hormonal balance, and lower blood pressure.
Multitasking can also take a toll on your body-mind. A recent study by neuroscientists Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai showed that people who reported engaging in high levels of media multitasking (defined as the concurrent use of multiple media devices, including mobile phones, laptops, and television) had decreased gray matter density in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that processes emotions. Their research supports findings of earlier studies that found an association between high levels of media multitasking and a tendency for anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties.
Try this: Look at your to-do list for the day and remove one of the items, choosing instead to use that time to just be. Sit quietly and notice the sensations in your body and then observe the activity of your mind without being attached to it. Or you can find a lovely spot outside and just become aware of everything entering you through your senses. What do you hear, feel, see, taste, and smell? After you’ve tried this for a few days or weeks, notice whether your feelings of stress have diminished. In the beginning, you may feel some resistance to this practice, but over time, you will find you crave these experiences of simply being.
Keep a Journal
One of the best tools to reduce stress is journaling. Studies have found that writing about stressful events improves both physical and psychological health. There are many theories about why journaling helps to reduce stress. According to some researchers, when you have an experience you perceive as stressful and then ignore it or “stuff it”—or obsess and ruminate about it—you activate the stress response in your body and mind. If you write about the experiences instead, you can process what happened, keeping only what serves you and letting go of the rest. A regular journaling practice doesn’t need to take a lot of time. By spending only a few minutes journaling, you can reduce the energy of stress in your body and improve sleep, which, as discussed, is vital to your health.
- Start your journaling with a recapitulation of your day—simply write down the events of your day as if you were an objective reporter looking through a video camera. Don’t attach interpretations or judgments to anything that occurred. If you felt a strong emotion related to an experience, it is fine to write that down, but detach from any judgment about the emotions that you felt. The idea is to let the emotions go through observing and writing about them. This helps reduce any stress you may have experienced as you went about your activities. This should only take a few minutes.
- Next, list three intentions for your life. For example: “I intend to increase my physical activity” or “I intend to love more.”
- End the journaling session by writing down three things you are grateful for. It can be something very specific, such as “I am grateful for the delicious meal I enjoyed with friends today,” or something more global, like “I am grateful for the beauty of nature.” The important thing is to bring that feeling of gratitude into your awareness, which will inherently reduce the feeling of stress. Notice how you feel when you journal on a regular basis.
- If you want to make sure that your private notes aren’t accidentally found or read by others, a ritual of shredding (or deleting) what was written is an excellent way to give finality to the release of the stressors of the day. Feel free to detach from what you wrote, and begin anew the next day.
Although these practices may seem too simple to be the answer to reducing stress, I encourage you to adopt them into your daily life and experience the benefits yourself. The small amount of time invested in these easy practices, some of which take almost no time at all, will begin to transform your mind-body from a state of stress to a state of relaxation.
Ultimately, when the mind and body are calm, you are able to experience your underlying spiritual nature of happiness, wholeness, and bliss—and open up to your full human potential.
Bailie, K, et al. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Adv in Psychiatric Treatment. 2005. Vol. 11, 338-346.
Loh, K, et al. Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PLOS One. Published: September 24, 2014 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0106698.
Motomura, Y, et al. Sleep Debt Elicits Negative Emotional Reaction through Diminished Amygdala-Anterior Cingulate Functional Connectivity. PLOS One. Published: February 13, 2013. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056578.
Sharma, A, et al. Exercise for Mental Health. J Clin Psychiatry v.8(2); 2006:106.