It comes to us all. That panicky sense that all is not well. It might be at work, in the car. The trigger could be anything from a traffic jam making you late or a much deeper sense of impending doom. The world feels wrong. You feel wrong. It’s called stress.
If left untreated the feeling builds and momentum gathers. What started as a storm in a tea cup builds to a towering tornado and suddenly you’re officially having a bad day. You snap at your partner, yell at sluggish pedestrians, drive dangerously, throw your computer across the table or take some dramatic course of action that you later regret. Some people obsess over the cause of their stress, replaying it in their heads over and over again.
Stress accounts for millions of days missed from work each year and may aggravate the risk of asthma, obesity, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and probably many others. Most sufferers feel helpless, caught like a fish on a hook, and long-term sufferers are so familiar with stress that it feels like a perfectly normal state of being—just life.
I’ve spent most of my adult life researching techniques from the worlds of psychology, the science of happiness and spirituality, and have come across these techniques, which I find always reduce stress. They’re easy to learn and can be done at home, in the office, or when stuck in a traffic jam.
1. 7/11 Breathing
This is breathing from your diaphragm—not your chest—so make sure the belly rises on your inhale. Count to seven on the inhald and 11 on the exhale. This is because inhalation provokes the sympathetic nervous system while exhalation provokes the parasympathetic nervous system. Practicing this technique will tip the body toward relaxation rather than stress. This is a powerful technique used with great success by sufferers of panic attacks and anxiety disorders. It takes a little practice, but the results are immediate and undeniable. It relaxes your emotional brain, which has put you in a flight-or-fight state and frees up your mind to do other things, including creative thinking.
This is a technique of Eastern religions that I call "yessing." The idea is to become aware of whatever thought, emotion, or situation is present and also notice the panicky feelings present. Those panicky feelings represent half of the problem—we are trying to escape the unpleasant situation and realize we can’t. That causes stress. What if we just stay with the original feeling and don’t try to escape from it? We say, "Yes, I accept/welcome this feeling. It can do me no harm." Then I say yes to the next moment and the next and so on until I am calmer and more in control. More than just a relaxation tool, this might be one of the most powerful spiritual tools ever. To be able to say: "Whatever Is here I accept it without judgment" is very powerful. Try this the next time you feel the first flicker of stress. You’ll be amazed at what happens! While you practice it remember to also accept thoughts like, "I’m not getting this technique right."
Notice the stressed feeling or the painful thought. Again, don't fight it head-on or try to escape it. While holding it in your awareness see what else is present. Notice the cup of coffee in front of you. So now you have this horrible feeling plus the cup in front of you. Hold them both in your awareness. What else? The noise of the roadworks, the table, the smell of coffee, your hands, the sound of the air-conditioning, the trees through the window, the church steeple, the yellow chins of the clouds, the grain pattern on the pine cabinet, the feel of the fabric on the arm of the chair, etc. Keep adding them all, and notice how they ground you in the moment. Now when you look back on your problem while holding all of this in your awareness you notice that it has shrunk! Not gone, not glossed over, not suppressed, but put into a new perspective where it is no longer a big, bold headline in your mind.
4. The counting game
Counting is a classic mindfulness technique. Sit somewhere comfortable. Focus fully on the number one. Hold it in your mind for a full breath in and out. Now focus on the number two with your next breath in and out. Focus fully on the number two, then three and so on. If you find for even a nano second that you are focused on a thought and not a number, return to zero and start again. You "win" when you get to ten without focusing on anything other than the number you are counting. By doing this you are achieving the state of being present and not fixated on the problem that causes your discomfort. Again this frees up your mind to explore a greater breadth of interpretations to your current reality—hopefully more positive ones!
5. Gratitude list
Gratitude has been known to improve mental strength and well-being. One way to practice gratitude is to pick a free five minutes, find a sheet of paper and pen and start writing down all the things in your life you are grateful for. These can be tangibles like a partner, children, friends, a job, a house, and food in your belly, but you can become as refined or as obscure as you like. For example, you can include the fact that friendship even exists or that you live in an age of electricity, planes, and smartphones. And you can wander into tiny details like the intricate pattern on the tablecloth, the beauty of a washed avocado stone, of a dissected red cabbage, of the softness of your inner forearm. After a while, you'll feel very grateful for your life with its myriad of splendors and stress will be a fading memory.
I recommend building all of these into daily practices and see how your previous world of stress changes. Timing is everything. Try to act when that first bit of unhappiness appears. Regular practice of these techniques not only helps to reduce stress, it also represents a big step on the road to self-mastery.