If you have the basics of sleep, exercise, nutrition and human connection sorted, you’ve taken huge steps toward making yourself the healthiest, calmest, smartest and most capable you can be. However, there are also many other powerful techniques you can learn to help cultivate relaxation and calm in your life.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Modern neuroscience is discovering that meditation is a powerful tool for improving our health, mood, and intelligence. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can lower stress levels, improve mood, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and more in as little as ten minutes a day.
To begin a mindfulness meditation practice, all you need is a few minutes and a comfortable place to sit. Start paying attention to your breathing. Breathe in deeply and slowly, and pay attention to the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body.
As you try to focus on your breath, all sorts of other thoughts may pop up. That’s normal. It’s a misconception that meditation is about turning off all of your thoughts. That’s not possible. Instead, the object of meditation is to teach you how to direct your attention. Keep your focus on your breath and let the other thoughts go. Over time, you’ll get better and better at ignoring random thoughts while keeping your attention where you want it.
If you prefer guidance in your meditation, there are many free or low-cost guided meditations available online or as apps for your smartphone. Calm and Headspace are two of the most popular apps. In addition, many yoga studios and community centers offer meditation practices.
If sitting still and simply breathing isn’t your style, many of the benefits of mindfulness meditation can be found in mind-body movement such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and some types of dance and martial arts. Mind-body movement practices seek to connect your mind, body and breath through various physical movements. These forms of movement give you benefits of exercise and meditation in one.
Connecting with Nature
Humans intuitively know that being out in nature is healing. For thousands of years, poets and philosophers have extolled the benefits of being in nature, and particularly beautiful natural places have been worshiped for their sacred properties. Today, science is validating what we have long known: connecting to nature is profoundly relaxing.
In a study Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers, scientists asked participants to spend at least 10 minutes three times a week connecting with nature. Participants could choose any space they liked that made them feel connected to nature, whether park, beach, forest, or backyard garden. Scientists then measured participant’s level of cortisol (a stress chemical) as they went about their day. Researchers found that spending just 20-30 minutes connecting with nature brought about a significant reduction in stress.
Even in the most crowded urban environments, it should be possible to find a bit of green space a few times a week. But, if you crave even more connection with nature, the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, might be for you.
Forest bathing is the name given to spending a couple of hours in a natural environment, drinking in the sights, sounds, smells, and texture with all of your senses. Wander at will through a forested area. Crush leaves in your hand and smell the sap or wiggle your toes in the dirt. Listen to the birds and feel the breeze in your hair. Studies show that two hours gently exploring a natural environment can produce real physical benefits, including reduced heart rate; improved mood; decreased depression, anxiety and fatigue; and increased vigor.
Niksen, Otherwise Known as Doing Nothing
If meditation is not to your taste, the Dutch practice of Niksen, or doing nothing, might be more your style. To practice Niksen, simply do nothing. Just be for a few minutes. Stare out the window. Watch the wind play in the trees. Sip your coffee in complete idleness. Just a few minutes of letting yourself relax and do absolutely nothing can be enough to induce a state of calmness and tranquility. For more information on the beautiful simplicity of Niksen, read Carolien Janssen’s book, Niksen, The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.
If you could make yourself healthier, calmer, and more resistant to stress in just a few minutes, would you? Studies confirm that practicing gratitude can do just that. When we reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives, even for just a few minutes each day, it has the effect of calming negative thinking and boosting positive thoughts, no matter how bad a day you are having.
To start your own gratitude practice, simply take a few minutes each night to jot down three or four things that you are grateful for. It can be something very small, such as the taste of a strawberry, or something very profound, such as the health of your children.
If you don’t care to write down your thoughts, try talking over what you are grateful for with your family. This also has the effect of bringing your loved ones closer. In addition, if you have children, sharing a gratitude practice with them gives them a tool they can use for better mental health and resilience for their whole lives.
Dealing with the Unexpected
In every life, unexpected stressors arise. Whether your experience a car breakdown, a sudden illness, an unexpected work deadline, or an unannounced visit from the in-laws, unexpected stresses can derail your life in big and small ways. The problem is, it’s impossible, by definition, to avoid unexpected stresses. What can you do?
The best way to handle unexpected stress is to build resilience. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, and it’s the answer to handling stressful events. To build your resilience, developing good self-care habits is key. Sleep well, eat well, exercise, and build a strong network of friends. Further enhance your resilience by meditating, practicing gratitude, and connecting with nature.
The more you develop stress-busting rituals and habits, the more you will be able to bounce back from stress, and stay healthy, happy, and calm.