Ideas for a Healthier Mind
Below are a few simple ways to bring down your stress level. Some are coping strategies and some are relaxation methods—both important for reducing stress. Find one or more that resonate with you and make a pledge to incorporate them into your life.
The best relaxation method is free, easy, and portable. In fact, it is with you your entire life. It is your breath. In a normal resting state, the average person breathes about 14 to 16 breath cycles per minute. Under stress, this can increase to nearly 30 and in a deeply relaxed state, it can be as low as five. Deep breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing.
When we are under stress, our breathing tends to be quick and shallow, using the top half of the lungs. The breathing style that produces the greatest relaxation response is that which allows the stomach to expand rather than the upper chest. This is actually how you breathe when you are comfortably asleep. The following steps can guide you to breathe deeply.
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
- Exhale out through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but the hand on your chest should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. In a few deep breaths, you should feel better.
Some people like to count with each exhalation, thinking of nothing but the number as they breathe in and out. Others like to say a mantra as they breathe in and out. For example, "I breathe in peace (calm, health, joy, trust) and I breathe out fear (anger, insecurity, stress)." Some simply like to follow the rise and fall of their breath.
Any time you feel your stress level rising, remember—just breathe.
For more information, see the blog, Stress Kills. Just Breathe.
"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind." Follow the words of Dr. Seuss and live authentically. It takes work and causes stress when you are not being true to yourself.
You know what is right for you. You just need to be open enough to hear it and courageous enough to listen. Follow your own path despite what others are doing. Don't be someone you are not in order to please others. It is easy to get caught up in what you think you should do, what society expects from you, or what your friends want you to do.
Be you. Nobody does it better.
For more information, see blogs Living in the Flow and Free to Be Me.
Write It Out
Do you ever feel like your voice is not heard? Do you have trouble expressing your emotional self? Do you ever got caught in an obsessive, swirling thought process in your head that you just can't get out of? Journaling might be able to help you. Writing down our thoughts is a way for us to speak our truth. It allows us to transfer the thoughts from our minds to the written page. It sets our minds free so that we can feel calm and peaceful instead of stressed and crazed.
Pick up a pen and start "talking"!
When you think of meditation, you probably think of sitting in a lotus position repeating the mantra, “ohm”. For years, meditation has been on my to-do list. I have tried to meditate at various points in my life, but my mind wanders and I’m uncomfortable in the recommended sitting position. Feeling that I wasn't doing it “right” made me feel like a failure.
Finally, I decided to give myself permission to create my own meditation. I call it Meditation with Hollywood. During the meditation, I lie down with my cat, Hollywood. While I am with him, I quiet my mind and focus only on him and the connection between us. I pay attention to the feel of his fur, the closing of his eyes and the purr of his body. His purr is the vibration of his happiness and I let it permeate my being. During the meditation, I feel my mind clear and my body relax. My breath slows, my heart rate lowers, and I feel calm. This happens without me even thinking about it. Sometimes I lie there for five minutes and sometimes for twenty. My meditation is simple and I am good at it— just the way it should be.
Give yourself permission to find your meditation. Is it working in the garden, staring at the ocean, listening to music, or hiking the trails? When you find it, try to incorporate it into your day—even if only for a few moments.
For more information, see the blog Meditation with Hollywood.
The average child laughs or giggles about 300 times a day. Adults laugh on average only 15 times each day. Are we losing our sense of humor as we age?
If negative thoughts can result in illness, then doesn't it make sense that positive thoughts can result in health? Yes! So, don't take life so seriously. Laugh at yourself. Watch funny movies. Play. Try to find the humor in not-so-humorous situations. Studies show that people who have a positive outlook and feel a sense of control over their lives have been found to have fewer illnesses, fewer doctor visits, and faster healing.
What are the things that bring you unconditional happiness? What are the moments where you have felt pure joy? Once you have identified these things, think about how you can incorporate them more into your life. For me, my stress level goes down immediately when I hop on my cruiser bike, Gypsy. She has red spokes and tassels on the handle bars with painted flowers on the fenders. When I ride her, I feel like a kid again. Find your Gypsy and go have fun!
For more information, see the blogs You're Laughing Now? and The Birthday Hat Dare.
Edit Your Life
A cluttered life is a cluttered mind. How much stuff is enough? Is your garage so full that you can't park your car in it? Are there piles of papers in your house that prevent you from finding what you need? Is your closet filled with clothes that haven't been worn in years? Creating space in your physical environment can improve your mental health. A cluttered environment makes for a cluttered mind.
Walk through your house and garage and see if there are items that you really don't need anymore. As you go, ask yourself the following four questions to shed some light on what should stay and what should go.
- Have I used it in the past year?
- What am I keeping this for?
- Do I need it?
- Can I live without it?
Are there things in your life that you thought might simplify your life but actually complicate it instead? If so, it's time to edit your life.
For more information, see the blog Free Space, Free Mind and the Environment sections Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
On a piece of paper, write out the five senses—sight, taste, sound, touch, smell. Think of examples under each sense that are relaxing and calming for you. Post the list on your wall and try to mindfully appreciate a few of them every day. If you want, you can add a sixth category—soul—that can be a combination of the senses or something that goes beyond the five senses. Here are a few of the senses that resonate for me.
- Sight - open expanse in nature; staring into a fire
- Taste - a glass of red wine (and the relaxed feeling after a few sips); warm chocolate lava cake
- Sound - sitting in my backyard listening to the trees blow in the wind, the birds chirping, and the kids playing in the distance; my cat, Hollywood, purring; silence
- Touch - a hot cup of tea with both hands around the mug; the warmth of a fire on my body; the feel of the sun on my body; a massage; the feeling of clean sheets
- Smell - the ocean air; sautéed garlic and onions
- Soul - watching sea turtles lay their eggs in Costa Rica at night; sitting atop a mountain in the Canadian Rockies after a strenuous hike to get there; playing with the dolphins while kayaking in Hawaii; being in Antarctica (toasting Ernest Shackleton)
"Having a great time. Wish I were here." I saw this quote on a postcard a long time ago and it always stuck with me. How often are you at a party, going about your daily life, or even on vacation, but you are not really there? We spend so much time ruminating about what happened in the past and worrying about what might happen in the future that we miss out on time in the present.
The more we live mindfully, the more we encourage health and wellness by breaking the cycle of the chronic state of stress that has become our daily lives. Try it by paying attention to the sights and sounds around you. Notice how your body feels in this moment. Focus your thoughts and mind on what is happening now. You can practice mindfulness at any moment in time—while washing the dishes, making the bed, walking the dog, or eating a meal.
Next time I'm having a great time, I plan to be there. How about you?
Respond, Not React
Too often our first impulse is to react when we are stressed. We do it every day. We feel stress when someone cuts us off on the freeway or holds up the line at the grocery store. Do you notice that such an event can set the tone for the entire day?
Rather than reacting, which only makes it worse, try to respond instead. The ego reacts, the soul responds. One way to respond rather than react is to practice an attitude of gratitude. It is hard to react and be grateful at the same time. When someone cuts you off, think of what you are grateful for (e.g. having a car to be able to drive to your destination). Another way to respond instead of react is by reframing the situation. Rather than assuming the person cut you off to make you mad, think of other possibilities where you feel only compassion for the other person (e.g. perhaps they are late to a funeral). In addition to these ideas, it is also important to understand your triggers so that you can identify when you might be more apt to react.
Take stock of what is going right in your life. Give thanks for what you have rather than bemoaning what you don't have or has gone wrong. And remember to take a breath first which can bring you out of the reactive state. You have a choice. Choose to respond, not react.
For more information, see the blogs Stress Kills. Just Breathe. and Trigger Happy.
Eat Well & Exercise
Without a doubt, there is a connection between food, stress, and health. Food and mood are inextricably linked—we eat to celebrate, we eat to relax, we eat when we are frustrated, we eat when we are bored, and we eat when we are angry or depressed. We use food to comfort ourselves.
The problem arises from the food we tend to want during times of stress. We reach for junk food, fast food, and processed food—all low nutrient foods. Some of these processed foods contribute to a cumulative effect of toxins in our body. For example, residues of synthetic or petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are found in many foods. Other foods are known to increase our sympathetic nervous system, thus keeping our stress response elevated. This is certainly not desirable, especially if we are already feeling stressed. Such foods include caffeine, processed sugar, processed flour, and salt. If you are feeling stressed, try to avoid these foods and opt instead for fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. A change in your diet can make you feel better.
For more information on healthy eating, see the the blogs Keeping it Real and Living in the 80s. Also, see the Body sections Eat This Way and Snack Well.
Exercise, like food, is connected to stress and health. It is a great natural stress reducer because it brings us back to homeostasis (balance) in our bodies and clears our minds. It flushes out the stress hormones that are produced and secreted in the course of a hectic day. Every time I go out for a run, my mood always improves. One study showed that 20 minutes of cardio helped people feel positive for up to 12 hours. In addition to relieving stress, exercise has been shown to decrease resting heart rate, lower blood pressure, decrease muscle tension, improve sleep, decrease body fat, and increase resistance to colds and illness.
For more information on exercising, see the blog Movement by Gypsy.
Our social support network is critical to our health. Having a good support team increases the quality and quantity of our lives. Having people that we can count on allows us to share our emotional burdens, making them more bearable. There are also numerous support groups available if you are stressed about a certain area of your life and do not feel like you can talk to your friends and family about it.
When we are stressed, we often retreat. Make an effort to reach out and ask for help instead. Even if you don't want to talk about the stressful situation, just surrounding yourself with loved ones is sure to make you feel better.
For more information, see ideas in the the Relationships quadrant.
Simply Be (in Nature)
The environment can be a great source of health through the solace and inspiration it provides us. Think about the times in your life where you were in nature and you felt a peace and calm wash over you. Spending time in nature helps ground you and put your everyday stresses and problems into perspective. Some of my favorite moments of being in nature include taking a hike, walking in the sand, staring at the ocean, riding my bike around the local park, and having a picnic on a mountaintop. Even just thinking of these times in my life lowers my blood pressure and quiets my mind.
Next time you are in nature, notice the sights and sounds around you. Do you hear the birds chirping and the wind blowing through the trees? How does the earth feel beneath your feet? You don't have to visit a National Park to get out in nature. You can take a walk around your neighborhood, eat lunch outside where there is greenery, or go to your local park. There is beauty in the simplicity of nature as a source of health. When we are in nature, we can simply be.
What are your favorite moments in nature and how can you make more time for them?
For more information, see the blogs My Love Affair with a Mountain, Green Exercise, and Peace by Nature and the ideas in the Environment quadrant.