The number one “how to” search in Google in 2015 was “how to get rid of stress.” I can certainly relate to that question as its something I’ve Googled myself many times (ha, maybe I was the one that tipped the scales).
I define “stress” as a state that develops when an individual is up against something they personally find demanding or adverse. Some people may find public speaking stressful while others love it. Rain may be stressful to someone on a picnic, but a farmer may be psyched. Stress is unique to each person that experiences it.
Stress gets built up in our system and unless we have an outlet for it to disperse, it will keep circulating in our brain and body. An illustration of this is to watch a dog get fired up about the mailman or another dog. They may bark and freak out but as soon as the “danger” goes away, they will give a hard full body shake. That’s their way of getting rid of the stress they just experienced. When we feel stressed out or develop chronic issues that don’t seem to have an explainable origin, it’s often because we have taken stress on without shaking it off. Stress can make us feel awful and can interfere with how we function. In order to reduce stress, we have to discharge it from our body and mind.
I’ve test driven many different techniques to reduce my own stress over the last decade. There is so much advice out there and it’s hard to figure out what really works.
This is not an exhaustive list but I have tried: getting up earlier, reducing dairy and bread from my diet, yoga, affirmations, a plethora of supplements and vitamins, unplugging from social media, journaling, reading book after bookafterbookafterbook, positive thinking, meditation, more sleep, and spending more time in nature. The list goes on and on. And they have all worked to some degree.
I have benefited from each of these things at some point in time. But it’s not sustainable for me to feel like I have to be a saint about each of them. I like pizza. I don’t always get a lot of sleep. I will forever be a night owl even though I pass as a decent morning person. I have narrowed this list down to two things that are absolute necessary elements in my life to keep everything else running smoothly. I start to get overwhelmed if I neglect one of these areas in my life.
Necessity one: Mindfulness or meditation
Mindfulness (aka paying attention) can take many forms. For me it is getting into my meditation room in my home, closing the door, plopping myself onto my cushion, and sitting for about 10 minutes a day in silence.
Meditation is one of those things that is talked about a lot, but not really understood. It has this air of mystery about it. It’s confusing. People get frustrated when they try it. “I can’t clear my mind, I can’t stop thinking, I’m really bad at it.”
Here’s the amazing truth about meditation. It’s literally just sitting in one spot, breathing, and watching all the thoughts and feelings and emotions churn and go nuts. You’re supposed to have all of these thoughts, they are normal! The difference is, in meditation, you don’t act on them. You just watch them. And that’s all you have to do.
It’s really that simple. No secret formula here. Just sit still and pay attention to your breathing and notice all the stuff that goes on in your head.
The power of 10 minutes of silent sitting is undeniable even though it seems too basic to work. It’s just like building a muscle in your body. When you start to build the habit of seeing all your crazy thoughts and not mistaking them for who you are, it is easier to get things done during the day and much easier to deal with the world. My brain is less hectic during the day when I’ve gotten a chance to slow it down first thing in the morning. And for days when I am not able to meditate in the morning, it helps to discharge the stuff that happened during the day when I sit down at night.
Mindfulness as a general category does not need to be sitting still. It means paying attention to what is happening. So perhaps for you it’s your yoga practice or going for a walk or a hike or a run or cooking or knitting or gardening. Any activity that requires you to be present will have a similar benefit for your brain and the way you feel. It helps you to discharge stress.
Necessity number 2: Movement
My yoga practice is a key part of keeping me feeling good. It covers both necessary stress-busting categories. It incorporates both mindfulness and movement into one activity. It’s the one-stop-shop for feeling good and shaking off stress.
The body is built for movement. We have all of these joints and muscles and tendons and ligaments and connective tissue. The body is at its best when it is in motion. Being in one position for any long period of time is detrimental for the way we feel both mentally and physically. Movement is also a wonderful stress discharger.
We’ve all read the studies about how sitting for long periods of time is going to kill us (and if you haven’t read them yet, you can easily find them with a quick internet search). I am guilty of sitting in front of my computer for hours at a time during the day as well. The days I spend the most time in front of the computer are the days that I have the hardest time sleeping at night and deal with an achey back and nerve-y wrists.
My solution is to get up regularly and move and stretch. Some people are organized enough to have a timer go off every 30 minutes to remind them to move. Since I am the queen of snoozing alarms, I usually get up when I start to feel the muscles in my back getting weary.
Walking is a great stress buster and doable for anyone. I try to get out for a stroll at least once during the day, even if it’s a jaunt to the post office to mail a letter instead of driving there.
Why these two practices work:
If you are being mindful and moving, you are not only discharging stress, you are also checking in with yourself on a regular basis. You are surveying the landscape of your mind. You are observing your body. When you are in touch with these two things, it allows you to be informed when you make other decisions.
If I know I’m having a tough day and my brain is filled with negative self talk, I always feel better about it after sitting still for a bit. This makes it less likely that I’ll overeat or zone out on social media and add fuel to the stress fire. If I’m having a cranky day and I get into the yoga room and my body feels like a crunchy ball of tension, it’s understandable that my mood would be sour. If I’ve done my yoga or meditation in the morning, I am less likely to lose my patience with a challenging person or myself when things are not going as planned.