Did another month go by, “just like that”? (I’m snapping my fingers in the air here.) I feel as if I’m constantly on the go, hurrying from place to place, phone in hand—or just within reach. Sometimes it seems as if my mind is rushing even faster—so many thoughts and feelings per second! For the multitasker in most of us, focusing on just one thing can be difficult, if not impossible.
When speed and busy-ness take priority, we tend to disregard everything else along the way. For me, that includes my own thoughts, all 50,000 to 70,000 of them per day. Tension? Anger? Frustration? Sadness? I’m so distracted by the next task that these emotions are pushed aside with self-talk like, “I’ll think about that later,” or “That’s uncomfortable, so let’s not go there.”
But what happens to our wellbeing in the meantime?
When we ignore our tension instead of addressing it, our bodies experience a buildup of cortisol, the flight-or-fight hormone. Over time, an abundance of cortisol can have disastrous consequences. Brain fog, decreased immunity, heart problems, elevated blood sugar, eating issues, diabetes, and hormonal and sleep disturbances are just a few common consequences of persistent stress.
Good news: A quick solution is available, and it doesn’t cost a dime! We can rebuild our resilience, health, and peace of mind through the practice of mindful attention.
Mindfulness peels away layers of rushing, negative self-talk, and anxiety. It encourages us to honor ourselves as living, breathing, deserving humans. Mindfulness softens life’s challenges and makes us aware of the larger picture in a kind and gentle way by valuing and tuning in to the present moment.
Why does being mindful and aware matter anyway?
Time is not a renewable resource, and it can’t be saved for later, either. The only moments we can treasure and appreciate, truly, are the ones we are living through right now. The future is unknown, and the past is done with. What remains is the life that we are living in this very second, and we have a lot to take in, feel, and learn from—if we only will pause and notice what’s going on. That alone is reason enough to be mindful—but we can also gain a physical health benefit: Mindfulness can bring calm into a busy life and diminish harmful cortisol build-up that takes a toll in terms of stress.
Here are some approaches I’ve been using today to tame stress fast:
- “Let’s be curious and see how it turns out.”
People who know me will recognize that “mantra”—it’s the one that I repeat throughout the day to myself and to others who are nervous, confused, or overwhelmed and just automatically jumping to conclusions. Instead of fearing the worst happening based on the past, repeating those words is my way to re-enter what’s really happening—or not—in a more open, positive way. Those words seem to just take the stress and impending doom out of various situations for me on the spot, and I begin to look forward to seeing how the event unfolds.
- Name your feeling.
When you notice stress, take one minute (or hopefully more) to quietly discern what you’re feeling and where you perceive sensation in your body. Go ahead and actually name it out loud, such as, “I’m feeling anger, and my pulse is pounding” or “Fear is giving me a knot in my stomach.” In a hurry? Then walk while you examine, but move more slowly so you can focus. Yes, mindfulness works on the go, literally.
- Observe the situation—without that usual self-talk.
Now that you’ve named your feelings, you’ve taken a step back to observe, objectively and completely without judgment, the way a camera lens would do. This allows you to detach from the drama itself and just consider how it affects you. Need something to help you in that moment?
Try thinking of your thoughts as clouds that come and go through your mind. By the way, if you feel resistance to naming the emotion, or if your thoughts are racing, or you just want to hurry through or dismiss the feelings, that’s normal. This kind of focused attention isn’t our usual status quo. Focusing on yourself takes practice!
- Just breathe for an instant reset.
Take 3 to 5 deep, measured breaths. You can even close your eyes. This focused, purposeful deep breathing is the opposite of the shallow, rapid breathing that accompanies stress. The dramatic shift from that anxious pant to a slow, refreshing breath resets, calms, and informs your system immediately. When I’m tense, I feel a difference every time after I slow my breathing. It’s like magic.
- Make friends with your experience.
Rather than engaging in the default habit of self-criticism or judgment—for example, “Why should I be angry about that? I’m so stupid”— cultivate a new awareness and curiosity about the emotion or reaction. I recently read an article by psychologist and writer Sylvia Boorstein, in which she recounts how she repeats the following two sentences to become aligned to what, and whom, she is experiencing, even at a bustling airport with mishaps. “May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.” Now that’s something I’d suggest you try when things are frustrating, annoying and seeming out of control, or just plain annoying. I’ve been repeating these words since I read the article, and they’re very helpful in turning around that triggered moment.
- Is it really true or just habitual thinking?
Pay close attention to what’s actually in front of you, not an automatic interpretation of it. Usually, our versions of present events come from our past and prevent us from truly seeing what’s happening in reality. Question whether your story is really true—or does it just seem that way? Think back—can you remember a time in your past when you felt that way? How are you prolonging that “story” about these events? That inquiry can be a huge clue to recurrent patterns still present in your life that may no longer serve you and the start of a very powerful evolution into becoming a mature, present adult. Remember: You are no longer that powerless child who had few options to be resourceful and empowered.
- Finally, make room for self-acceptance.
Have some compassion for your perfectly imperfect humanness. The overachievers among us tend to think “I’m never good enough” thoughts. Others of us may judge ourselves undeserving or feel selfish for shining a light on ourselves. Meet those doubts with softness, kindness, and an understanding that you are a loving, valuable presence in the world.
Let this 7-step technique become your best new habit. It takes practice, but with time, you can achieve an effective stress reversal in 30 seconds!
Perhaps along the way you’ll also find yourself becoming more aware and appreciative of the world around you. Right here and now is what we have in front of us, and it’s a friendly, important place that we don’t want to miss. Looking at what we’re presented with more closely, even in its difficult moments, just might be the answer.
I choose health, peace, and freedom over stress, worry, and mindless activity. How about you?