This morning I woke up with a feeling of mild dread about how I was going to meet all my work deadlines today. Feeling that tightness in the pit of my stomach is always counterproductive: The more I worry about doing it all, the less able I am to get it done. I know I should meditate, or take a long brisk walk, or do some yoga, or write in my journal. But all those laudable practices seem overwhelming or too time-consuming in my frazzled state of mind. So I’ve discovered over the years some very quick stress releasers that help get me focused for whatever I need to do. They are so quick and easy to do that even I can’t make excuses for not doing one or more of them.
A few minutes of deep belly breathing can make a world of difference to my mental state. Most of us breathe deeply enough to stay alive, but not deeply enough to feel good. I imagine taking my breath all the way down to a point a few finger widths below my navel. In the Japanese tradition, that area in our abdomen is called the hara, believed to be a core energy center. Then I breathe out slowly, imagining my breath expanding out into the space around me. I repeat inhaling and exhaling in this deep slow way for a few minutes. It only takes a few breaths for me to feel peaceful and focused.
2. Loosen Your Tongue
This is a trick I learned a number of years ago when I studied progressive muscle relaxation training. Many of you may be familiar with a stress reduction technique that involves alternately tightening and releasing all your muscles from head to toe. Progressive muscle relaxation is a great technique, but it typically takes 15-20 minutes to go through the whole process. A short-cut way to relax your muscles is to focus on relaxing your tongue. Believe it or not, most of us carry a lot of tension in our tongues. So try this: Allow your jaw to go slack, then bring your attention to allowing your tongue to become more relaxed. Take a few minutes to allow your tongue to become softer, heavier, and looser. If your tongue is relaxed, it’s almost impossible for other muscles in your body to be tight. As you relax your tongue, the rest of your muscles will follow along. (And don’t be afraid to drool a little!)
Get to a window and find an object to focus on. It can be any object, even something ugly, as long as it draws your interest. Take a few minutes to focus all your attention on this object. Notice all its shapes and colors. Avoid judging whether it is good or bad, beautiful or homely. Just notice it for what it is, and try to discover as much about it as you can while you fully engage with that object. You’ll find it impossible to feel stressed about anything while you are looking at something with your full attention. (This morning I am cheating by staring at Pike’s Peak out my bedroom window)
4. Be Grateful
My friend Doug Lennick refers to this technique as “turning on the gratitude channel.” Instead of waiting for gratitude to strike you spontaneously, spend a few minutes consciously reminding yourself of all the people and things in your life that you value and appreciate. Take a few minutes to make a series of statements to yourself beginning with “I am grateful for….” This morning I am feeling grateful that I’m living near my family, that Sunday is July 4th (fireworks. Yay!) and that the weather today is so beautiful. Saying what you’re grateful for out loud makes this technique even more powerful for reducing stress.
Even five minutes of physical activity can lower your tension levels. Stretch, yawn, run up and down the stairs a few times, water the plants, play with the dog. Of course, this level of activity is not enough to build physical fitness, but it’s more than enough to put you in a better frame of mind for tackling the day’s challenges. Making time for quick movement breaks is especially useful for those of us who spend most of our days tethered to our computers.
Wow. I feel better already just writing about these quick and easy stress reduction techniques! Try one or two out today, and please let me know how they work for you!