To reduce stress at the level of its causes, you first have to identify those causes. This can be a challenge because the stress is usually a cumulative process. It’s not one isolated factor that stresses you, but multiple factors drawing on your resources and abilities all at the same time. As much as possible, lighten the load of your responsibilities. After you’ve done that, look for ways to improve your coping abilities in a general way.
The Power of Exercise
Just as regular exercise can keep your body fit and toned, it also can keep your mind clear and focused. It’s great if you can join a health club and get a structured, aerobically challenging workout three or four days a week. But even if you can’t, a little bit of daily activity goes a long way. Just 30 minutes of walking three or four days a week is enough to lower blood pressure, lower blood levels of “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol, and improve insulin sensitivity in most people. Vigorous exercise also releases natural chemicals in your body, called endorphins, that can make you feel a bit euphoric. This good feeling often extends for up to several hours following the exercise, which is a wonderful natural mood elevator.
Walking for 20 to 30 minutes at a stretch, at a moderately vigorous pace, is best. Even if your day is full, you can usually squeeze this in. Taking a brisk walk before lunch, for example, revitalizes your energy level and hikes your metabolism up a notch or two to burn more calories from your midday meal. If you feel that you can’t squeeze 20 to 30 minutes out of your day for exercise, go for shorter segments and look for ways to be active in the course of your day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park at the back of the lot or around the block, and walk to the office or store. A more leisurely walk in the evening can help you unwind and clear your mind before turning in for the night, helping you get a more restful night’s sleep. Other activities such as tai chi, yoga, and martial arts can have the same benefits as conventional exercise.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.”
— Lena Home
Easing Your Cluttered Mind: Meditation
People who don’t meditate often think of meditation as a process of clearing everything from their minds. The mere thought of this can be overwhelming enough to keep you from even trying meditation! There are many forms of meditation, however. The idea behind meditation is to retreat within yourself for a short time. Some people accomplish this by sitting outside, watching the clouds go by or listening to the birds in the trees. Others follow a more formalized process, retreating to a special place where they can sit in solitude and silence. Like exercise, meditation is most effective when you do it regularly.
A 10-Minute Meditation Exercise
If meditation is new to you, try this exercise. Go to a place where you can be alone and uninterrupted for 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be any place special, although it often helps to get away from your daily environment by going outside or to another room. At first, use a timer or an alarm so that you meditate for exactly 10 minutes.
- 1. Sit down and get comfortable, and then start the timer.
- 2. Close your eyes. Take several slow, deep breaths. (Slow is the key here — fast deep breathing will cause you to hyperventilate and feel dizzy.)
- 3. Become aware of your thoughts. See them spinning and colliding through your mind. Are they fragments not connected to one another, or are they complete concepts?
- 4. Choose one thought and focus on it. Try to envision everything about it. Examine it with your mind as you might examine a strange object with your senses.
- 5. Let this single thought expand until it fills up your mind, crowding out all other thoughts. When other thoughts attempt to intrude, ignore them. Focus only on this single thought, and hold your focus for as long as you can.
- 6. When you become distracted or your timer goes off, release the thought slowly and gently, as you might release a butterfly. Let it return to its original size and state.
- 7. Notice what happens to the other thoughts that had been jumbled in your mind. Do they rush back in, or are they smaller and less significant, too?
- 8. Take several slow, deep breaths and open your eyes. You should feel refreshed and relaxed.
If you’d like to learn more about meditation and how you can use it to combat stress, you might enjoy The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meditation (Alpha Books, 1998).
If you can’t remember the last time you worked up a sweat, schedule a checkup with your doctor before embarking on an exercise plan. You might also want to have a fitness consultant help you design an exercise plan that can safely take you from where you are to where you want to be.