There is definitely a time for action. Like when you wake up at 3 a.m. and hear water pouring out from somewhere in your house after you've just returned home from a winter vacation and it turns out that your frozen pipes are bursting (not that I'm speaking from actual experience, or anything). In that moment of stress, it's probably not the best time to sit and meditate on your dilemma.
Don't just sit there, do something! Happily for me, my husband leapt out of bed, ran through the basement (naked, mind you) and shut off all water in the house until he could isolate the offending pipe. The amygdala, the part of the brain that identifies danger and then activates the body for fight or flight, is quite good at reacting to potential danger. A little too good, you might say.
For many of us, the stressors of high-paced, nonstop modern living chronically stimulate our amygdala, thus keeping our bodies in a state we call stress. We become so locked into high alert that we remain stressed out even though no danger actually lurks around the corner. While a single stress response can be critical, chronic stress is a health hazard.
Often our well-meaning leisure activities, our attempts to lower our stress levels -- such as going on vacation, going to a yoga class, engaging in our hobbies, or even having a massage -- fail to keep our stress levels down. Why? Because, 1. we get stressed just trying to fit these activities into our busy lives (and paying for them) and 2. the moments of relaxation we might experience often don't carry over into our day to day living.
So, how can you truly restore yourself, simply and effectively, every day? Don't just do something, sit there. Right there, in your chair. After all, it's the small moments of peace through your day that make a big difference to your stress level. In my book, Shortcuts to Inner Peace, I offer a compendium of effective relaxation techniques. Read on to learn eight of them. Whether it's in your desk chair or your recliner, just sit, relax, and restore.
The first four practices you can do with your eyes open while the last four practices can be done with your eyes shut. You may find setting a timer for 1-5 minutes helpful.
1. Daydream by gazing out your window -- I know that your teachers told you to stop staring out the window and focus on your work. But now your objective is to let your work go for a few minutes. Start with a long exhale and then let your gaze wander. Notice what's happening in the outside world. Just notice. Feel how your body relaxes as you redirect your mind away from stressful thoughts. Especially fun is to imagine a feel good fantasy -- romantic, heroic, or otherwise. Daydreaming is not only relaxing, but it can actually help boost your creativity.
2. Investigate a small object, looking for details -- It's remarkable how you can look at the same objects every day but actually not see a thing. Take a moment to look at something within reach and really notice the details. Explore the color nuances, the textures, the shadows, the design. Discover the hidden aspects of your stapler, your favorite pen, the picture on the wall, the shell in your desk drawer. Notice how your mind redirects as you go on an adventure into the micro-landscapes around you.
3. Tap on your body from the feet up -- Use your knuckles to gently tap your way up your body. Focus your attention on the sensations. Start with your feet and move up your calves to your thighs. Tap along your torso and up each arm. Use your finger tips to gently tap your face. When you redirect your attention toward physical sensations, you may notice that your thoughts subside. Energy medicine considers tapping an important way to help relieve stress and revitalize your energy.
4. Doodle -- Put pen to paper and let yourself meander. Doodling is another way to jumpstart your creative side. Give your left brain a rest and let your right brain wake up. When we move our attention away from goal-directed activity during doodling, our "attention system" is relaxed. So give your left brain a break, stimulate creative juices and have fun!
5. Close your eyes and Listen -- Listen to the sounds around you. Isolate your sense of hearing, letting yourself notice and label each sound that you hear: "dog barking, car honking, copy machine, colleagues gossiping, rain pounding, etc." Slow the spiral of stressful thinking by bringing yourself fully into the present moment. Mindful listening clears the mind and has the effect of rebooting your system.
6. Close your eyes and imagine yourself on a fantastic vacation -- Take a moment and travel back in time to a wonderful trip. Or picture a fabulous destination that you've always wanted to visit. Use details to imagine the temperature, the sights, the sounds, the smells. Replay a favorite place, detail by detail. Notice how your body responds to pleasant, relaxing thoughts, almost as if you are actually there. Take a deep breath. Consider this your "Calgon take me away!" moment.
7. Close your eyes and breathe -- Your breath is like a portable spa. It's so obvious, so ever-present, and yet we rarely think to harness its potent powers. While there are many breathing exercises to consider, I personally suggest the 4-7-8 breath, an ancient breathing pattern taught by Dr. Andrew Weil. Breathe in for the count of 4, hold your breath to the count of 7, and exhale your breath, breathing out through your mouth as if breathing through a straw, to the count of 8. The pairing of an exhale that is twice as long as the inhale is especially relaxing.
8. Close your eyes and scan your body -- Start with the top of your head and "scan" down, slowly checking in with your body. As you scan, imagine warmth spreading from the top of your head, down your neck, over your shoulders, down your arms, down your torso, down your legs, and moving out through your feet. Notice a sense of inner awareness. For example, even with your eyes closed, you are aware of your hands and feet; you can feel an aliveness within them. Allow your attention to move from "thinking" to "sensation." Use these moments to re-connect with your body and release any tension within. The body scan is a classic relaxation technique.
There is a time and place for action and reaction, but there's also a place for the pleasure of stillness. You may not be able to get to the yoga mat, your barbells, or your sneakers. But you can take a moment to lean back and relax into the peacefulness of just sitting there.