April is National Stress Awareness Month – a "holiday" of sorts that invites us all to take the opportunity to acknowledge and address the stress in our lives. We all face stress from time to time, and some of us truly struggle with it. In fact, a recent study reveals that approximately 57 percent of people experience paralyzing stress, and 47 percent say their response to stress is to "take it out on themselves." Ouch.
One of the most effective ways we can reduce our experience of stress is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be applied in many areas of life, and it offers us the chance to tap into our inner peacefulness in spite of whatever outside stressors we may encounter. Here are some mindful ways to take the sting out of stress this month, and anytime. Try them for yourself and see how much better you feel.
1. Up your meditation practice: Try 10 minutes twice a day – or 20 minutes twice a day if you can make time. Look for guided meditations on Insight Timer or try the free Balanced Mind with Julie Potiker podcast on iTunes. Mix it up so that your mind is relaxing into the practice.
2. Look at your "what gives you joy" list: Make time to do one or two activities on that list every day. If you have been putting off making that list, do it now. Just free associate for a few minutes with a pen and paper and watch the list grow. Remember that little things work, like a warm cup of tea or a bath, as long as they bring you joy.
3. Get a good night's rest: Pay attention to your sleep routine and see whether you can do the things most professionals teach to ensure you are getting solid rest: 7 hours of sleep a night, no screen for an hour before bed, etc.
4. Make time to exercise: You will benefit from the release of endorphins. Exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medicines for people suffering from mild to moderate depression. In addition to the endorphins, you can feel a sense of strength and power from exercise, which may help to counteract feeling powerless during times of stress.
5. Eat well: Eat healthy food, slowly and mindfully; watch your sugar intake; limit your stress eating and alcohol drinking; etc. You know what to do!
6. Stay connected with other humans: We are wired to connect and it feels supportive when we share the burdens with each other. I attended a rally against hate after the horrendous events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Intellectually, I knew that me being there would not make one bit of difference. Emotionally, it was just what I needed to feel connected to 500 other human beings who share my values.
7. Take self-compassion breaks throughout the day: Place your hand on your heart or where you find it most soothing. Acknowledge what's going on. For instance, say to yourself, "This is a moment of suffering; this is hard." Then connect yourself to the multitudes of humanity that are also suffering, knowing in your bones that you are not alone in your existential angst. Then tell yourself something helpful. My mom used to say, "This too shall pass." I tend to say, "You're going to be okay," or something along those lines.
8. Ground yourself through the soles of your feet: No kidding; put your feet on the ground and send your attention down to the soles of your feet. How do they feel? Are you in socks and shoes? Barefoot? Cold or warm? Moist or dry? The act of doing this breaks the discursive loop of thoughts and emotions.
9. Ground yourself with a pebble: I use my "here and now stone." It's the same concept as focusing on the soles of the feet (from the tip above). Feel it, look at it, notice everything about it, and you will break the discursive loop of thoughts and emotions.
10. Get outside: There are huge health benefits to being in nature. While you are there, see if you can feel the temperature of the air, the breeze where it touches your skin. Notice any smells, and really look at the sights – leaves, flowers, etc. If you are walking, pay attention to how your feet feel hitting the ground, how your legs feel working, how your arms feel swinging at your sides. While you are noticing all these sensations, you are not ruminating or worrying.
11. Contribute what you can to charities doing relief work: Giving makes us feel good in a couple of ways. Of course, it feels good knowing that we are doing our small part to help, and that all of us giving together can mobilize great assistance where it is needed. It makes us feel some sense of control that we are taking action in a positive way. Giving also gives us a dopamine bump in our brains, and the dopamine makes us feel good.
12. Don't bathe in the bad news: Try to stay away from television news or video news. You can read or listen to the news so you have an idea of what's going on, but stay away from graphic visuals.
13. Take time to laugh: Watch comedy (but not political satire if it gets you activated). Any funny movies from the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks are good bets for getting you laughing. Amy Schumer has a new special on Netflix that is off-the-hook hysterical (if you like raunchy humor, which I do!). And I can usually count on Sarah Silverman to absolutely kill me, in the best way. Laughter really is good medicine!
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