Count your breaths
Best for: Surviving red-alert emergencies
When it comes to calming down, deep breathing is still the place to start. "By forcing yourself to breathe as you do in your most relaxed moments, you trick your body into releasing calming neurohormones, causing a biological shift in how you feel," says psychotherapist Belleruth Naparstek, a leader in the field of guided imagery. "Just inhale and feel your abdomen expand. Go as slowly as possible, counting in—1-2-3. Then, observe the turn of your breath, and breathe it out—1-2-3. Whether you do this for one minute or five, it's going to bring you to a calmer place."
Be here now
Best for: Combating worst-case-scenario anxiety
"Our minds are constantly in the past or the future—we'll ruminate on what's too late to change or catastrophize about what hasn't happened yet," says Diana Winston, a director at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and coauthor of Fully Present. "But the more you practice coming back to the present, the less anxious you'll feel. For example, when I wash dishes, instead of letting my mind wander to all my worries, I really try to show up and pay attention to the sensations of the task—the water, the heat, the plate in my hand. You can do this in the shower or even when brushing your teeth. No one says you have to meditate with your eyes closed."
Flex and release
Best for: Letting go of work tension
"Start by clenching the muscles in your forehead and face as you take a breath and hold it for a moment," says Nina Smiley, PhD, coauthor of The Three Minute Meditator. "As you release the tension, exhale fully and relax. Work your way down your body, repeating the process. The tightening and releasing is a physical cue to the body to let stress go."
Take a smoke break (without the smoking)
Best for: Coping with chronic stress
"In a way, smokers have the right idea," says Julian Ford, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and coauthor of Hijacked by Your Brain. "When they step outside to light up, they're doing one of the most important—and hardest—parts of de-stressing: taking a break. They consciously distance themselves from immediate pressures and remove themselves from all the cues that say, Work harder. This naturally turns down the alarm in their brain. Happily, you don't have to engage in dangerous behavior like smoking to do this. Simply walking away from stressors for a few minutes can be one of the best practices for learning to handle daily pressure."
More on Stress Management:
From the February 2013 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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