We’ve all experienced stress in the body: from that initial surge of hormones, elevated blood pressure and heightened senses, to chronic conditions of irritability, insomnia, anxiety, pain, and lowered levels of immunity. Despite its bad reputation, stress is a life-saving mechanism that allows us to perceive potentially harmful events and quickly respond to danger through the fight-or-flight response. Still, our body’s physiological reaction to stress – whether caused by a looming deadline at work or something far more threatening – is indistinguishable, forcing the sympathetic nervous system (stress system) to remain hyperactive.
Meditation, on the other hand, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system), and counters the overactive tendencies of our amygdala: the part of the brain responsible for our survival instincts. Daily meditative practice makes it easier not only to embrace a natural state of awareness, but also helps to train the brain to become more focused, less reactive to negative influencers, and decreases the accumulation of stress in the body.
Meditation is not a means to control the mind: we have as many as 50,000 thoughts a day, making it an implausible feat to quell that stream of consciousness. Nor should it simply be used as an occasional relaxation tool: the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of mindful practices are too impressive to be thought of only in times of need. Rather, meditation allows us to connect to the deepest part of ourself, to unearth the silence beneath the thoughts, to access an unchanging, interior world disassociated from external stimuli.
Given our culture’s association with stress and success, we often link optimal performance to intensity and tension. A common misconception of practicing meditation is that by embracing a state of relaxation, we in turn become less competitive. Research, however, indicates otherwise: stress not only inhibits our ability to concentrate and make good decisions, but also wrecks havoc on our body’s healing response, increasing our chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune and digestive disorders, and cancers. In contrast to this dire list of health problems, meditation has been shown to improve creativity, energy, fluid intelligence, memory, learning capabilities, and reduce performance anxiety.
Incorporating mindful practices like meditation into your workday allows you to establish a peaceful reference point that you can access whenever a situation is spinning out of control. Below are a fews examples that can be practiced at your desk, in an empty conference room, or even in the bathroom – wherever you feel most comfortable closing your eyes and indulging in the silence.
Long, Slow Deep Breathing:
Inhaling slowing through your nose, experience the belly filling with air and expanding outward into the world. Next feel the air filling your lungs entirely, pushing your shoulders back to increase the tension felt on the chest and diaphragm. Allow the breath to then move up to the clavicle.
Hold for a moment.
Exhaling slowly through the nose, experience the breath clear completely from the lungs, before contracting your belly against your spine to release the rest of the air.
Hold for a moment.
Repeat this cycle, keeping the length of each segment equal in time (example: inhaling while you count to 4 and exhaling while you count to 4).
When you feel ready, allow your breath to return to its natural rhythm and depth.
Scan your entire body, from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes, calling attention to each sensation felt throughout your being.
Relax your forehead, soften the eyes, bring awareness to your nose, cheeks, ears, lips. Relax the jaw, neck, and slowly scan down the entire left arm, from shoulder to fingers. Draw your attention across your clavicle to your right arm, scanning down from your shoulder to fingers.
Bring awareness to your heart center, imagining your heart pumping blood. Experience the sensations of the belly, the pelvis sitting in the chair. Scan down each leg from the thigh to the tips of the toes, first the left leg, and then the right.
Imagine the spin unifying the right and left side, rotating down the back of your body.
If any area is feeling pain or discomfort, breathe fully into the space, imagining a warm healing energy enveloping that area.
With your eyes closed, take a moment to confront a recent stressful situation. Allow yourself a few few seconds to relive the experience before asking “how did this situation make me feel?”. Pause to contemplate the question, then reflect, “how did I treat myself and others?”. Finally ask yourself, “what did I do to relieve this stress?”. Now release this experience, coming into the present moment as fully as possible, willing yourself to be completely relaxed. Ask yourself “how do I feel now?”.
Bring to mind a moment when you were at ease. Perhaps you were on vacation, enjoying the beauty of nature, or simply surrounded by friends and family. Take a few seconds to step fully into this recreated visualization. Ask yourself, “how did this situation make me feel?”. Pause to consider the question, then contemplate, “how did I treat myself and others?”. Finally ask yourself: “what can I do to feel like this more often?”.
Take a few deep cleansing breaths. In your own time, open your eyes and try to carry this experience of gratitude with you for the rest of the day.