Establishing a regular meditation practice not only helps with daily stressors, but also conditions your body and mind to react with less intensity when life throws you a curveball. It’s not that dedicated observation of breath magically stops you from having normal human reactions; instead, it allows you to develop a deeper understanding of your subtle body and its shifting moods and energies. By grounding yourself firmly in the present, you begin to recognize personal triggers and can build tools to diffuse challenging situations.
Meditation not only changes your relationship to stress, but also produces lasting alterations to brain activity by enhancing the hippocampus – responsible for memory and decision making skills. A 2005 study, led by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, found that meditation could offset age-related cortical deterioration, to the extent that a 50-year old longtime meditator boasted the same amount of grey matter as a 25-year old. Subsequent studies also revealed that beginners following an 8-week mindfulness stress-reduction program could increase their brain volume in areas controlling learning and emotional regulation, while reducing the size of their amygdala, responsible for the body’s fight or flight response and a key player in the sympathetic (stress) system.
Understandably, starting a meditation practice can be daunting for those new to tradition, but committing even 5 minutes of your day to mindfulness can, over time, inspire dramatic changes to your wellbeing and relationship to stress. Weaving a few holistic activities into regular routines will keep you centered and make it easier to create healthy habits.
Consider one of the following:
- Explore the world of essential oils. Place a small bottle of lavender essential oil at your work desk to keep your body calm and your mind uplifted. Try breathing the fragrance in deeply while closing your eyes for a few seconds. Also look for oils diluted in fractionated coconut oil to massage directly into your temples.
- Experiment with yogic breathing exercises. Pranayama (meaning life force) is particularly effective in reducing anxiety. Try extending your exhalation to twice that of your inhalation. This triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, and allows you to conserve energy and slow your heart rate. Breathe in on a count of four, and exhale on a count of eight.
- Bring mindfulness into a simple activity such as making a cup of herbal tea. Draw your attention to the sound of the water heating in the kettle and the wisps of steam dissolving into the air. Pour the prepared water over the tea leaves and focus your attention on the slow coloration of the water. Experience the warm cup in your hand, the sensation of the first sip, and the heat of the liquid in your mouth. Each time you notice your mind spinning out of control, gently bring yourself back to your senses.
- Establish a humming practice. We communicate with others through sound waves, making the vibrational tones we emit for ourselves immensely therapeutic. On each exhalation, hum for an extended period of time, feeling the stress accumulated in your jaw, throat, and shoulders melt away.
In time, you’ll find that small changes yield large results. Practicing mindfulness in the most mundane moments can lead to profound revelations about your relationships, your inner dialogue, and the way in which you experience and absorb your surroundings. By relaxing your pre-existing notions of stress, you’ll cultivate strength and stability to draw from in the face of any hardship.