Stress is inevitable, but it doesn't have to drag us down. The trick lies in managing it. Unfortunately, most of us are not doing a great job. The recent Health in America Survey reveals that 72 percent of Americans believe their stress has increased or remained the same over the past five years, and the average American experiences more stress than they believe to be healthy.
I recently participated in the Stress Management Forum hosted by Harvard School of Public Health & The Huffington Post. Though each expert approached the subject of stress from a different angle (Dr. David Eisenberg from a clinician's perspective, Dr. Ellen Langer from a psychological perspective, Dr. Laura Kubzansky through the lens of social and behavioral sciences, and I from a mindfulness and public health point of view), we all agreed that research indicates chronic stress may contribute to heart disease, hypertension, anxiety and depression.
While major life events like job loss or serious illness may elicit a stress response, smaller worries can have a big impact on our health too. "When we feel that we can't control things, and that those things we can't control are going to have a very negative impact on us, we react," explains Dr. Ellen Langer.
We stress about work and money, relationships and the flu. Though these are valid concerns, a constant flow of stressful daily details is taxing and demands an effective relief strategy. The panel discussed how mindfulness practice can be effective in managing stress.
The beauty of mindfulness is its simplicity. Every one of us can seamlessly integrate it into our daily lives. It's a common misconception that to live mindfully one must sit on a meditation cushion each day and dedicate weeks of the year to silent retreats. In fact, it takes only a few conscious breaths to ease yourself out of a stressful frenzy.
In the time it takes to grab a chocolate bar or snap at a coworker, we can calm ourselves down. In so doing, we protect our health and create a sense of peace in and around us.
When you feel anxious, nervous, strained or stressed, try this breathing exercise:
Breathing in, silently repeat to yourself: I'm fully aware of my in-breath.
Breathing out, silently repeat to yourself: I'm fully aware of my out-breath.
Repeat in- and out-breaths five times.
In just moments, you will feel greater freedom accompanied by increased stability.
We can invite this relief into any stressful situation. We can also practice breathing in our daily encounters so that it becomes second nature. Examples from Savor: Mindful, Eating Mindful Life, the book I co-authored with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, include Standing in Line Meditation, Email Meditation and Traffic Meditation.
Each time we choose to take mindful breaths instead of traveling through a self-perpetuating cycle of stress, we enforce new, healthy habits. We are creatures of routine, and whether or not we're aware of them, we create and reinforce patterns each moment. Better to choose habits of stress reduction than be led blind by coping mechanisms like sugar cravings and television addictions.
Awareness of these patterns is mindfulness at work. To be mindful is simply to notice. So essentially, the key to combating stress is to turn off autopilot. A regular practice of mindful breathing is a tremendous way to do so. Consistent practice not only offers stress reduction but also increased connection with those we love, and greater happiness.
For more by Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D., click here.
For more on stress, click here.