If you were to eavesdrop on the conversations taking place around you, stress would likely be one of the most common words you would hear. People talk about feeling 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. At the Chopra Center, we 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, surging adrenalin, 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.
Surfing the Waves of Change
Fortunately, learning how to deal effectively with stress doesn’t require any athletic ability—it’s a skill that anyone can learn. With a little practice, instead of continually being triggered into a stress response by outside situations and thoughts in your mind, you can learn to spend more time in your own natural state of well-being.
Here are a few of the most effective tools we teach at the Chopra Center for navigating life’s ongoing waves of change.
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, insomnia, anxiety, and other stress-related illnesses.
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 us being consciously aware of the process. Buddhist psychology describes this process as samskaras, which can be seen as grooves in the mind that makes 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 samskara 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 taught at the Chopra Center, 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. If you’re interested in learning Primordial Sound Meditation, I encourage you to visit www.chopra.com to find a certified teacher in your area.
2. 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.
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 manner 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.
3. Practice Mindful Awareness of 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, fixed 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.
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 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, typically react to stress by finding fault with other people and becoming angry.
Kapha: The most even-tempered dosha is Kapha. Those whose mind-body type is predominantly Kapha are usually easygoing and gentle, but when faced with overwhelming conflict or stress, they may withdraw and refuse to deal with the situation.
If you don’t know your dosha, you can take the Chopra Center’s online Dosha Quiz to identify your mind-body type and get more information about how to stay in balance and manage stress.
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 under emphasized. 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.
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 the body 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 tiptop 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. The Chopra Center teaches 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.
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 will begin to experience a sense of calm and well-being that extends beyond the yoga mat into your daily life.
7. 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.
This article was originally published on chopra.com.
Photo Credit: iStock