If you were to eavesdrop on all the conversations taking place around you, stress would likely be one of the most common words you’d hear. People say they feel stressed about their work, the economy, global politics, deadlines, their relationships, and just about everything else. Many suffer from the emotional and physical consequences of chronic stress, which include accelerated aging and increased rates of heart disease, anxiety, cancer, depression, migraine headaches, and other serious disorders.
While stress is considered an epidemic problem, I’ve never believed that it exists in the environment or in external situations. I like to define stress as our response to what is happening. It’s not the overdue payment, traffic jam, or fight with our spouse that causes stress – it’s our thoughts and the story we tell ourselves about an event or circumstance that create the emotional upset, racing heart rate, shallow breathing, and other symptoms of the stress response. The analogy of a surfer is useful here: If you’re a skillful surfer, every wave is an exhilarating adventure or at least an opportunity to learn something new. If you’ve never learned how to surf, on the other hand, every wave is a terrifying potential disaster.
Fortunately, learning how to deal effectively with stress doesn’t require any athletic ability. It’s a skill anyone can learn. First, it is valuable to look more deeply at what is known as the stress response. Let’s consider a common scenario: You’re at work when your manager calls and asks to immediately see you in her office. Depending on your typical thought process, you may immediately begin to worry, “What did I do wrong? I wonder if my job is on the line . . . if I get fired, it could take a long time to find another job in this economy.” Your dread builds and you really do not want to go to see your manager. Or you may find yourself getting angry, thinking, “After all the work I’ve put in, I’m not putting up with any criticism. This company is lucky to have me here.” You head toward your manager’s office feeling belligerent and ready to defend yourself.
The 10-Ton Thought
Whether you react in fear or in anger, the thoughts in your mind create stress in your body. Your ancient fight-or flight response is gearing up, but no woolly mammoths are roaming through the office – just “thoughts” – convincing you that your survival is at stake. When your stress response is triggered, your body has an instantaneous reaction:
Your heart beats faster.
Blood pressure increases.
Your breath becomes shallow and rapid.
Blood sugar rises.
Adrenalin and cortisol production surge.
Your immune system weakens.
The production of sex hormones decreases.
Digestion is halted.
Researchers have found that even 24 hours after a triggering event, the body continues to experience the negative effects of the stress response.
Choices that Relieve Stress
There are many valuable practices that can help you go beyond the primal fight-or-flight response. You can learn to experience a restful response – a mind–body state that is as natural as the stress response, but infinitely more peaceful and healing. Here are some of the most effective tools and techniques:
1) Resolve the Stressful Situation if Possible
You may not have much control over many of the sources of stress in your life, but if there is action you can take to resolve a stressful situation, do it! Talk to friends about what you can do to change a situation or gain a new perspective on it. Consider getting help from a conflict resolution expert if necessary.
Conscious Communication. One skill that is extremely helpful in preventing and eliminating stress is conscious communication, also known as nonviolent communication. It’s a way to clearly communicate your needs in a way that improves the likelihood that they will be met. With practice, you can learn to express your needs, ask for what you want, and create more fulfilling, stress-free relationships. At the Chopra Center, conscious communication is part of the core curriculum for our staff members and is also taught at several of the workshops and programs we offer. To learn more, the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, is an excellent place to start.
Meditation is a simple yet powerful tool that takes us to a state of profound relaxation that dissolves fatigue and the accumulated stress that accelerates the aging process. During meditation, our breathing slows, our blood pressure and heart rate decrease, and stress hormone levels fall. By its very nature, meditation calms the mind, and when the mind is in a state of restful awareness, the body relaxes too.
Research shows that people who meditate regularly develop less hypertension, heart disease, anxiety, and other stress-related illnesses that speed up aging. Furthermore, new studies are finding that meditation literally restores the brain. A recent groundbreaking study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital has made headlines by showing that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people feel calmer but also produced changes in various areas of the brain, including growth in the areas associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.
This study adds to the expanding body of research about the brain’s amazing plasticity and capacity to grow and change at any stage of life. We can nurture our brain’s power and maintain a youthful mind by developing a regular meditation practice.
How Does Meditation Work? We are all engaged in a continuous internal dialogue in which the meaning and emotional associations of one thought trigger the next, usually without our being consciously aware of the process. Buddhist psychology describes this process as samskaras, which can be seen as grooves in the mind that make thoughts flow in the same direction. Your personal samskaras are created from the memories of your past and can force you to react in the same limited way over and over again. Most people build up their identity on the basis of samskaras without even realizing they are doing this.
In meditation we disrupt the unconscious progression of thoughts and emotions by focusing on a new object of attention. In the practice of Primordial Sound Meditation, the “object of attention” is a mantra that you repeat silently to yourself. A mantra is pure sound, with no meaning or emotional charge to trigger associations. It allows the mind to detach from its usual preoccupations and experience the spaciousness and calm within.
The more you practice meditation, the more you are able to experience expanded states of pure awareness. In the silence of awareness, the mind lets go of old patterns of thinking and feeling and learns to heal itself.
3) Connect to Your Body
While the mind is constantly flitting to thoughts of the future and memories of the past, the body lives in the only moment that truly exists: the present. One of the best ways to relieve stress is to tune into your body. Your first and most reliable guide to balance, harmony, and happiness is your body. When choosing a certain behavior, ask your body, “How do you feel about this?” If your body sends a signal of physical or emotional distress, watch out. If your body sends a signal of comfort and eagerness, proceed.
What can you do to start listening to your body? The most basic elements are as follows:
Feel what you feel. Don’t talk yourself into denial. Accept what you feel. Don’t judge what’s actually there. Be Open to your body. It’s always speaking. Be willing to listen. Trust your body. Every cell is on your side, which means you have hundreds of billions of allies. Value spontaneity. Emotions change, cells change, the brain changes. Don’t be the policeman who stops the river of change by blocking it with frozen beliefs.
Enjoy what your body wants to do. Bodies like to rest, but they also like to be active. Bodies like different kinds of food that are eaten with enjoyment. Bodies like pleasure in general.
One of the most basic ways to be aware is by grounding yourself in the body. There is no mystery to it. Simply feel your body whenever you’ve been distracted. Let’s say you’re driving a car, and somebody cuts you off. Your normal reaction is to be agitated or angry; you jump out of the calm, relaxed focus that connects you to the mind–body field. Instead of being overshadowed by this disruption, just go within and feel the sensations of your body. Take a deep breath, since that is an easy way to come back to body awareness.
Keep your attention on these sensations until they disappear. What you’ve done is cut off the stimulus response with a gap. A gap is an interval of non reaction. It stops the reaction from fueling itself. It reminds the body of its natural state of harmonious, coordinated self-regulation, and that grounds you. It’s easy because harmonious self-regulation is the body’s ground state. Stress pulls you into another state of heightened biological response that triggers a flow of hormones, increased heart rate, hyper-vigilance of the senses, and many other linked reactions. But all are temporary; they are emergency measures only. If you allow the stress reaction to become a habit however, disharmony enters the field of mind and body. The normal state of relaxed awareness tries to co-exist with the disrupted, agitated state of the stress response. The two don’t mix; they aren’t meant to exist at the same time.
Any time you’re feeling distracted, overwhelmed, stressed or overshadowed, there’s a tendency to escape. The state of denial is an escape.
Distracting yourself through overwork is an escape. Altering your mind with drugs and alcohol is an escape. What they all have in common is absence of awareness. You numb or distract yourself under the false belief that unawareness will help you, while being too aware will only increase your pain. In reality, the opposite is true. Awareness heals because awareness is the only thing that is truly whole, and healing is fundamentally a return to wholeness.
To get on the path to increased awareness, say the following affirmations to yourself and then carry your words into action:
I will make choices to maximize the energy in my body. My body is my connection to the infinite supply of energy in the universe. If I am feeling lack of energy in any way, it means that I am resisting the flow of this infinite supply. I will ask my body what it needs and will sincerely follow its advice. The ideal state is to experience such lightness that I do not feel bounded by my body.
Before I act on any emotion, I will consult my heart.My heart is a reliable guide when I trust it. It monitors the emotions of others around me. This helps me experience empathy, compassion and love. The heart is the seat of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence allows me to get in touch with my deepest self. It nurtures all relationships by reminding me to see myself in the other.
Lightness of being in my body will be my indicator of happiness.If I feel heavy or dull in my body, I will pay attention because these feelings are signs of inertia and the dreariness of habit over the potential that every moment has for freshness and new life.
4) Understand Your Unique Stress Response
Your mind–body constitution (known as your dosha in Ayurveda) plays a great role in how stress affects you. Ayurveda offers specific recommendations for each mind–body type, including the most effective ways to cope with stress. Here are the stress patterns of the three main doshas:
Vata: Those with predominantly Vata constitutions have the greatest tendency toward anxiety and worry. Normally creative and enthusiastic, in the face of stress, Vatas tend to blame themselves for their problems and become extremely nervous and scattered.
Pitta: Pitta types are usually warm and loving, but if they’re out of balance, they typically react to stress by finding fault with other people and becoming angry.
Kapha: The most even-tempered dosha is Kapha. Kapha types are usually easygoing and gentle, but when faced with overwhelming conflict or stress, they may withdraw and refuse to deal with the situation.
5) Get Plenty of Sleep
Restful sleep is an essential key to staying healthy and vital. When you’re well-rested, you can approach stressful situations more calmly; yet sleep is so often neglected or underemphasized. There is even a tendency for people to boast about how little sleep they can get by on. In reality, a lack of restful sleep disrupts the body’s innate balance, weakens our immune system, and speeds up the aging process. Human beings generally need between six and eight hours of restful sleep each night. Restful sleep means that you’re not using pharmaceuticals or alcohol to get to sleep but that you’re drifting off easily once you turn off the light and are sleeping soundly through the night. If you feel energetic and vibrant when you wake up, you had a night of restful sleep.If you feel tired and unenthusiastic, you haven’t had restful sleep.
You can get the highest quality sleep by keeping your sleep cycles in tune with the rhythms of the universe, known as circadian rhythms. Ayurveda teaches that the optimal sleep routine is to rise with the sun and go to sleep when it’s dark out, or at least by 10 p.m.
Ideally, eat only a light meal in the evening, before 7:30 if possible, and then go for a leisurely walk. The body’s digestive powers are strongest between the hours governed by the Pitta dosha (10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). By eating a light dinner, instead of focusing all its energy on digesting a heavy meal, your body can use the Pitta cycle to detoxify itself and get the deep rest it needs. You can go for a leisurely walk after dinner and then be in bed by 10 p.m.
It’s also very helpful to download your thoughts from the day in a journal before going to bed so that your mind doesn’t keep you awake.
6) Practice Yoga
Yoga is another timeless healing practice for releasing stress and the damaging effects of the fight-or-flight response. Not only is yoga an excellent physical exercise that increases your flexibility and strength, but it also balances the mind and body, calming the nervous system, increasing the production of stress-relieving hormones, and releasing stored toxins.
You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment or to be in great shape to start practicing yoga. All it takes is loose clothing, a mat (some classes will provide mats) and the desire to learn.
There are many different styles of yoga. Most use a series of postures designed to stretch and strengthen muscles, and also use focused breathing to quiet the mind. One of the most popular styles in the U.S. is Hatha Yoga, a relatively slow-moving, gentle style. Other styles such as Ashtanga and Power Yoga are more vigorous. At the Chopra Center, we teach a unique style of yoga known as the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, which focuses on body-centered restful awareness.
The intention of the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga is to integrate and balance all the layers of our life so that our body, mind, heart, intellect, and spirit flow in harmony. As we expand our awareness through the practice of yoga, we become more capable of perceiving the richness that life offers.
Getting Started with Yoga: Find out about the different kinds of yoga that are offered at classes in your area. Choose the style that fits your goals and level of fitness. You can also get started by using a good instructional book or DVD at home, although it’s usually better for beginners to start with a class. If you are pregnant or have any serious health conditions, talk to your doctor before you begin. Once you start a class, let your teacher know about any injuries or health issues.
Whichever style of yoga you choose, take it slowly at first. Don’t try to force yourself into difficult poses at the beginning. After a while, you will develop more flexibility, strength and stamina. Your teacher shouldn’t push you to do poses that aren’t comfortable. If your teacher is going too fast, talk to him or her, or look for a class that is a better fit.
With a regular practice, you begin to experience a sense of calm and well being that extends beyond the yoga mat into your daily life. You gradually stop dwelling on stressful thoughts and feel more lighthearted and joyful, even in the face of life’s inevitable upsets and disappointments.
7) Spend Time with Loved Ones and Friends
Research shows that a good social support network has definite mental health benefits. It can keep you from feeling lonely, isolated or inadequate and if you feel good about yourself, you can deal with stress better. Friends and loved ones can be a good source of advice and suggest new ways of handling problems. But they can also be an excellent distraction from what’s bothering you. If your network of friends is small, think about volunteering, joining an outdoor activities group, or trying an online meet-up group to make new friends.
8) Exercise Regularly
Whether it’s walking outside with a friend or taking an exercise class at the gym, getting active can help you relax and help turn off your body’s stress response. A complete fitness program includes exercises to develop flexibility, cardiovascular conditioning, and strength training. Find an aerobic activity that you can do regularly – three to four sessions each week for twenty to thirty minutes is usually enough to give you substantial benefits. After your body is warmed up, spend five to ten minutes stretching. You will also want to include strength training in your program to systematically exercise the major muscle groups of your body.
The important thing is to start off slowly, find physical activities you enjoy, and do them regularly. If the most you can do right now is walk around the block, do that, and you will be surprised how quickly you increase your endurance and enthusiasm for moving and breathing.
9) Do Activities You Enjoy
Part of being stressed out is feeling that you never have enough time, so adding more activities to your schedule might seem like the last thing you need. But if you make even a little bit of time for an activity you really enjoy, the payoff can be huge: You feel calmer and happier and can deal with work and other demands better. Whether it’s playing music, doing a craft, or working on your car, do something that absorbs and relaxes you.
The goal in all of these practices isn’t to try to control the flow of life so that you’ll never experience stress or frustration again; the secret is to be patient and offer yourself compassion as you learn to respond to challenges from a place of peace and calm.