Have you ever wondered if there is something you can do about stress before it hits?
I know when I’m trying to get through a stressful situation, I often don’t recognize that my emotions are churning and my thoughts are spinning, or that my shoulders are tense and up around my ears. It takes mindfulness to help me reset.
But what about all the moments in between those inevitable stressful times? Is there something we can do to strengthen our mindfulness “muscle” so we can be more resilient and responsive when stress does hit? There is. I use “mindful moments” to punctuate my day with moments of intentional presence to strengthen my resilience in the face of stress.
I start by reminding myself that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can always ground myself by focusing my attention on my breathing. When my go-go-go is brought to an abrupt halt by a long line at the grocery store, or I’ve otherwise hit a wall and find myself completely overwhelmed – the simple practice of focusing on my breath and releasing muscular tension in my shoulders helps me center and slow down. This is the reason I do the Practice multiple times a day. I anchor the Practice to things I do routinely and do it whenever I think about it. (Getting caught in a long line at the grocery is a perfect time!)
Incorporating mindful moments into my day helps me be more present, no matter what is happening. The more I practice these simple mindfulness tools throughout my day, the more likely it is I’ll be able to stay calm when stress threatens to knock me off kilter.
So, if you’re looking for small ways to employ mindful moments as an antidote to stress even before it hits, here are 10 suggestions.
- The Practice – releasing muscular tension through the breath. The Practice is always the 1st step to maintaining your balance in the face of challenge. Put your attention on your breathing a few times a day, even when you don’t feel particularly stressed. Notice where you’re holding physical tension as you inhale deeply. Then let it go on the exhale as you allow your shoulders to relax and slide down your back. Continue for a few minutes and notice the tension start to dissipate. You can do this any time, wherever you are, when you’re sitting, standing or lying down. Use the Practice while you’re driving, in a meeting, on your walk, waiting in line at the grocery, in the waiting room at your doctor’s office – really any time.
- Take a walk. Whether it’s first thing in the morning, on your lunch break, or an evening stroll, be present to your surroundings instead of getting caught up in your thoughts. Notice the buildings, landscape, people, colors, the temperature, smells and sounds.
- Practice mindful eating. Take your time and pay attention to the texture and taste of each bite. Stop multi-tasking and practice eating slowly and intentionally as you focus solely on the act of eating.
- Push pause on technology. Put down your smartphone for a few minutes. Tune in to what’s happening around you instead. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Is it difficult for you to pause like this? What do you notice about your level of distraction or lack of focus? Experiment with expanding your technology-free windows.
- Do the dishes (or another simple task). Instead of looking ahead to the next big item on your action list, focus on a single simple task. As your mind drifts (which it will), bring it back to the task. You may have to do this 50 times, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes to maintain a mindful focus while you do whatever you’re doing.
- Do nothing at all. The first thing that might come up is your resistance to doing nothing. When that happens, set it aside and just sit with your thoughts and feelings. Try to observe whatever comes up, without evaluation or judgment. You can sit outside and watch the birds or inside and stare at the wall. The point is to get as comfortable as you can simply existing.
- Stand up and stretch. Focus on the areas that feel the most tense: your neck, shoulders, lower back or hips. Now, move around a little. Spending just a few minutes every hour or so will allow your body to make any necessary adjustments to create more physical ease.
- Make a cup of tea. The very act of drinking a hot beverage encourages you to slow down. Before moving on to your next task, be mindful of the way the warm mug feels in your hand, the aroma and flavors of the tea. Enjoy each sip with the intention of taking a pause. Breathe in the steamy scent, and as you breathe out, let go of tension.
- Focus on being present during a conversation. Engage in a conversation and actually listen to the speaker’s words. Pay attention to the unspoken language (e.g., facial expressions, hand movements and posture). Ask questions and clarify statements. Show compassion. Try to really understand where the other person is coming from. Keep your focus on time spent with them, and every time your mind drifts, remember your commitment to be present and then refocus.
- Journal your thoughts. Jot down your take-aways from any of these exercises. You can write in full sentences, bullets or try your hand at poetry. Describe a scene or distill the experience to key phrases. This practice will heighten your overall awareness over time. You could also reflect on an event that triggered you or otherwise raised questions. Again, the goal isn’t to judge or come to any sort of conclusion, but to sit with your thoughts and experiences and try to see them for what they are. Rather than shame or blame, lean on compassion.
All these exercises help me return my attention to the here and now. When I’m present, my body can relax, life slows down a little, and I might even see a way to address the stressors in my life in a new way, by being aware of them, instead of reacting to them.
Do you have a favorite activity that helps you calm down when you’re under stress? How about a daily mindfulness practice that helps you manage it? If you do, I’d love to add it to this list, so please share it in the comments.
Take good care : )