Whole-system health providers, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners, often say the single most important thing you can do for your health is quiet the mind. This is partly because stress can cause or aggravate a number of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and even cancer. It can also contribute to pain and discomfort, such as tight shoulders, back and neck pain, and irritable bowels. If we don't handle stress in a healthy way, it can exhaust us, lower our self-esteem and ability to concentrate, and wreak havoc on our personal relationships.
You already know that stress pops up very naturally in response to life's changes (even the good ones), and it can take its toll on your mental and physical health. You might even know exactly what stresses you personally the most, whether it's work responsibilities, a difficult relationship, or a hectic daily schedule that barely leaves you any time to yourself.
Here's a secret: It's the reaction you have to stressful events that makes you sick. You may not always be able to reduce the amount of stress in your life, but you can, with practice, cultivate a healthy response to the stress that you do face.
Our habitual responses to stress
Most of us don't effectively reduce our stress because we're too stressed out to do it! Instead we rush for the fastest fix-overeating sugary foods, taking out our frustrations on other people, having a drink, or whatever other method we've developed to distract ourselves from what is making us tense.
But what you'll notice with these quick fixes is that they only work for a brief amount of time--perhaps you'll feel better while you eat that bowl of ice cream, but as soon as it's gone, all the worries and fears from the day come leaking back in. For real emotional wellbeing, we need to find a way to reduce our stress levels by implementing healthy solutions and adjusting our habitual ways of reacting.
How stressed are you?
Take our Stress Mastery Assessment. This will give you a sense of what you need to work on as you reduce your stress levels: do you need help identifying where your stressors are, or more information about how to shift negative thoughts to positive ones? Or are you pretty good at seeing the effect of stress on your emotions, but need some ideas for relaxation exercises to help with those emotions?
What you can do about it
We know we say it a lot, but the truth bears repeating: practicing mindfulness is a key step in cultivating personal wellbeing. Being mindful of the way you eat and move your body will lead you to make healthier decisions about physical health, and being mindful of your stressors will help you understand how to cope with them in an effective way.
So to start, simply notice the times when you feel stressed. (If it helps, you can keep a journal--the same one you started last month to monitor your food habits would work just fine.) Just pay attention. When are you stressed? Where in your body do you hold the stress? Are your shoulders tight, your stomach cramped, or do you have a pounding headache? What are your habitual, instinctive responses to this stress?
When the stress is mounting, see what it feels like to simply breathe slowly and deeply. Instead of reaching for food or snapping at your family, give yourself a minute to pay attention to your breath. Mindful breathing slows you down and gives you time to think before you act. As you focus on the sensations of breathing, let go of worrying, planning, reliving something that just happened--all the normal stressful chatter of your mind. In time, you'll find you are able to free yourself from routine thought patterns and the destructive emotions that sometimes accompany them.
Align your body and mind with mindful movement
Another way to reduce stress, while cultivating a clear understanding of how the mind and body are interrelated, is to try yoga or qigong. Both are believed to improve emotional imbalances, as well as physical health. They both use the body, breath, and senses to cultivate a still mind and restore harmony. You can even try chair yoga at work, or get started with an easy seated yoga pose.
Use your creativity
Creative therapies have been known to help people become more expressive, communicative, and relaxed. That's because a creative hobby can provide a meaningful place to direct your attention when you are feeling tense. Here are some ideas:
- Listen deeply to a song you enjoy, without distraction
- Draw outside
- Write freely in your journal, without stopping or editing. Just let the thoughts flow.
Immerse yourself in nature
If you can, go outside for your lunch break, or park a few blocks away so that you can enjoy a longer walk to you car. Being outside in the sun can naturally elevate your mood and help you feel relaxed. If you don't have easy access to the outdoors, or if the weather is poor, watch one of our Take 5 videos. You'll be instantly transported to the soothing environment of a northern Minnesotan forest as spring arrives. (You can choose to just watch the images, or to have music and/or a voice guiding you through the relaxation process.)
So, take some time to find a little quiet in your mind. Your body will thank you. And your sense of wellbeing will flourish.