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Stress management: feel free to improvise

photo by Jenna '16
photo by Jenna ’16

Managing stress can feel like ordering chaos. It is possible, and it is simpler, though maybe not easier, than we might think.

Let’s look at what “stress” is for a moment. Here is one relevant definition from Oxford dictionary: “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Does this mean that if we are feeling stressed, often we are living in adverse or very demanding circumstances? It could, but it could also mean that our perception of the circumstances has become skewed so that we perceive ordinary tasks as overwhelming or even dangerous. If sitting down to write a paper sets off some of responses of fear and adrenaline, then we are in need of some tools to manage the chaos of the mind and its effects on the body.

Picture this: you are short on sleep, you are behind on work, you are bereft of inspiration, and you are projecting a cataclysmic outcome on your future. If you are willing and have enough desire, you might just find that with a few moments of mindful breathing, you are, indeed, more relaxed. The way this works is that when we settle into the moment at hand and resist the pull and urgency to control external events, we begin to feel where our power truly lies. We may even say, “I am being chased by a lion (or my teachers), and I am scared and don’t know if I will make it.” But in this very aware moment we can notice that we are breathing hard and that our shoulders are hunched up. We might just take a big breath and drop our shoulders, and the body will begin to slow down right then and there. The heart rate will slow, the muscles might let go a bit and the mind gets a little clearer and a new perspective begins to appear. We might notice how strong our legs are to be able to carry us so fast with the lion on our heels, or remember that we have written many papers before and that our writing is getting better with each assignment.

I start each day with meditation. My morning routine is mainly comprised of greeting the day and myself with awareness and appreciation and a good dose of stillness. This allows me to handle more gracefully the feelings that arise and fall throughout the day. If you are fairly new to this, I suggest counting breaths or following a guided recording or even just listening to relaxation music. I practice pranayama, which is breathwork that controls the breath toward a particular goal such as relaxing or energizing. A simple technique (though very effective) is observing the breath by closing your eyes and feeling what the breath does as it moves in and out of your body. I remind myself that life is both big and small. How my day flows has a lot to do with knowing when to step back for the bigger picture and when to contract my awareness to something simple and tangible like five slow, focused breaths. My day is then a moving meditation (though I guarantee it may not look like it at times).

The beauty of using a practice of mindfulness (whatever that might look like to you) is that you can do it anywhere and anytime. You can do it morning or night. You can do it in stillness or in activity. Try it now. Just sit and feel yourself breathing. Look around you. Listen. Now carry on.