Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his classic book on mindfulness meditation, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” recalls a poster of a seventy-ish yogi, Swami Satchitananda, in full white beard riding atop a surfboard with the caption, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
That is also the nature of stress in our lives. The goal is not to try to eliminate stress, but to learn to manage it. To find a comfortable balance, to oscillate, between too much and too little. Too much and we feel like we’re jumping out of our skin. We become anxious, distracted, irritable. Too little stress and we feel bored, restless.
You can say that the art of stress management is the ongoing practice of keeping ourselves at a level of stimulation that is healthy and enjoyable. To achieve this is indeed a practice. You cannot go to the health club and expect to build muscle tone in one week.
So, where do you begin? Start with the practice of incorporating simple breathing exercises into your daily regimen. The breath is simply one of the most effective tools we have to manage stress. Taking deep, slow breaths helps to center and ground us, particularly when agitated.
The Balloon Exercise
Try this simple exercise at least once a day. Sit comfortably and take 5 slow, deep inhales. Then, breathe out gently, imagining a feather floating to the ground. Like a balloon, expand your belly on the inhale and deflate it on the exhale. Inhale with a four count, exhale for an eight count. With regular practice, you will begin to notice short and long- term benefits like a new calmness and subtle changes in how you respond to stress.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Where in your body does stress begin? For some, it’s in the stomach, for others in the neck or back.
- Can you try to notice the sensation of stress moving, rising or falling in your body? At what level of stress do you reach that “no going back to calm” feeling?
- What situations trigger a stressful response? What makes you irritable? I recommend starting a journal to note these trigger points.
The more we become aware of these elements, the more we are on the path to “staying within ourselves” in stressful situations. You will feel more poised and confident and will also be perceived that way by others.
Breathing exercises, and other suggestions below, help us get more in touch with these parts of our “inner climate.” We become aware that we have unconsciously learned our reactions to stressors. The good news, on the flip side, is that we can learn to choose our responses to stressful situations. We all have the capacity for this self-awareness and transformation.
Here, then, are seven categories that help to manage stress mindfully. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You may already enjoy doing many of these things, but not associate them with stress management. Even if you add just one idea to your daily regimen, you will be taking an important step forward to a more peaceful and healthful life.
Seven Mindful Categories for Managing Stress
- Breathing exercises
- Listen to music
- Watch comedies
- Read for pleasure
2. Body Work
- Get enough sleep
- Get a massage
3. Creative Expression
- Play an instrument
- Eat healthfully
- Vitamins: especially the B Vitamins
- Supplements (see a nutritionist)
5. Create a Support Group
- Community, both secular and spiritual
- Volunteer Work
- Dream Meaning
- Guided Visualization