Add to that your own personal obligations to family and friends, and increased measures to stay safe during a pandemic. It’s enough to dampen anyone’s holiday spirit.
The good new? There is a stress-relieving practice that can brighten your mood and get you out of survival mode. It’s called mindfulness. We spoke to mindfulness experts who share stress-relieving tips that promote happiness. It can change your mind quite literally. Here’s how.
Mindfulness is a practice of self-awareness that can promote calmness of the mind, stress relief, emotional regulation, improved focus, clarity and lessened reactivity to conflict, among other benefits.
“Mindfulness is a way of being. It is being in the present moment and paying attention to the present moment in a way that is accepting, curious and compassionate, with others and yourself. It is also about awareness. Self-awareness and awareness of others,” said Katie Dutcher, a founding teacher at Monterey Bay Meditation Studio.
Stress manifests in the body in different ways. For some people, it is an emotional response like anger, frustration or sadness. For others, it can be anxiety, a tummy ache, difficulty sleeping, trouble focusing, weight gain or even headaches. One part of stress is the experience of being busy, and the aches and pain in your body. Another part of stress is your reaction and resistance to it, expained Dutcher.
“Our stress said not only am I struggling, but I shouldn’t be struggling. I should be all right with this. I should be stronger. That judgement adds a whole other level of difficulty on top of it,” said Dutcher.
When you find yourself in that stressful moment with self-judgment, you’re in survival mode, or fight, flight or freeze. Your mind is not able to go deep and understand the why of what is happening to your body and the emotional response you are experiencing. So how do you get out of it?
“That first way is to step out of your mind by connecting with your five senses. What do I hear, what do I see, what do I smell, what sensations do I feel in my body and what can I taste? This brings you back to the present moment and out of that anxiety,” said Lisa Oglesbee, MBA, a certified professional life coach.
Another way to use mindfulness to relieve stress is to process your emotions. Oglesbee suggests trying to imagine you need to explain to an alien what you are feeling, but they don’t understand emotions so you need to describe it with physical sensations.
“So you would say, my skin feels hot and tingly. My chest feels tight and my heart is beating fast. And as you are describing this you’ll notice that those feelings will lose their intensity,” said Oglesbee.
“When you label what you are feeling—like this is anxiety, this is fear, this is sadness—it takes you into the present moment and out of the anxious mind. It allows for the feelings instead of trying to repress them or avoid them. And at the same time, it lessens them and builds that emotional resilience. So each time you go through that you’ll know I’ve been here before. I know this feeling. I am going to be okay. And you just bounce back faster and faster,” said Oglesbee.
When you practice mindfulness, you automatically begin to show up in a way that is more present and aware of others, said Dutcher. She offers these seven tips for stress relief:
1. Ground yourself. Feel your feet on the ground. If you’re sitting, feel your body meeting the chair. Just sense that you are right here, that there is earth underneath you. Let your body rest into this support.
2. Breathe. Just breathe. Sit and take a few (or many) slow and conscious breaths.
3. Name your emotions. Practice naming emotions as they come up. “I am sensing a feeling of ____.”
4. Connect with your senses. Take a few breaths, then begin with the sense of touch. What do you feel on your skin? What do you sense in your body? Then move to hearing, listening, smelling and seeing. Stay with each sense for a little while until it feels complete. (Try this outdoors!)
5. Set an intention. Ask yourself what is important to you about this situation that you are entering. How do you want to show up? Let this intention guide you, and return to it as often as you need to.
6. Pay pointed attention. Turn any daily task into a meditation by doing only one thing, slowing down and paying attention.
7. Be Kind. Ask yourself, what would be the kindest response to yourself right now in this situation?
Mindfulness is a way to pay attention to what is occurring inside and outside of your mind and body. It is a skill that mindfulness experts say trains the mind much like physical exercise trains the body. The beauty of practicing mindfulness is not only does it provide a dose of stress relief, but it allows you to carry the experience of openness and compassion with you throughout the day. So when a conflict arises, rather than reacting with the same negativity of the other person, you can share a smile or kind words to defuse the situation.
“A great way to start for a busy massage therapist are activities that bring the parasympathetic nervous system online. Find ways to decompress throughout your day. Ideally every half hour for one to two minutes. That can be as simple as stopping and taking one or two full breaths really deep in the belly, and standing straight,” said Meg Salter, mindfulness coach and executive coach.
Another method to relieve stress is a technique called eye gazing, where you look at the horizon in a soft way. Salter also recommends at the end of a busy day pausing to deeply listen and look at somebody you care about. “Look at them like the way you would look at a newborn baby,” said Salter.
These decompression techniques can be used throughout the day during breaks between clients. They are short and effective in promoting ease, increased alertness, concentration and productivity.
Meditation is a technique to practice mindfulness that can be very effective in a short time. There is a common misconception that in meditation the mind stops thinking. So when you try to meditate and this doesn’t happen, it can give you the impression you are not good at it. But don’t believe it.
“When you see a picture of a person meditating, they look so peaceful and they look like it is pure bliss. But we don’t actually know what is going on in someone’s head. We think it is hard because we think it is supposed to be a certain way. I am supposed to stop thinking,” said Dutcher. How we overcome that expectation is through acceptance. “Accept that, yes, I’m a human being and I think and so does everybody.”
Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as paying attention to your hands while giving a massage or while you wash the dishes or listen to the sound of your feet as you walk. The increased awareness helps promote a positive response in the mind and body and a brighter outlook on life. Not only will it help you be more productive, it will improve your focus, cultivate compassion, and make you more aware of your mind and body’s needs.
With these ideas about mindfulness and stress-relieving exercises, this holiday season can be less about stress and more about the best of this time, whatever that means for you.
Be patient with this new process, and yourself, said Salter. “Like any skill, there is a learning curve,” she said. “When you are starting out, it is like a wobbly muscle. You don’t have it yet. You will, with time, but don’t beat yourself up for starting. Congratulate yourself for starting.”
Aiyana Fraley, LMT, is a freelance writer and health care professional with more than 19 years of experience in the massage field. She teaches yoga and offers sessions in massage, Reiki, sound healing and essential oils. Her articles for massagemag.com include “Yoga Nidra for Self-Care” and “The Massage Collective: A New Way of Doing Business?”
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