We live in a busy world. Stress is everywhere and between taking care of yourself, your home, your job, and possibly a spouse, children, and/or parents, it’s easy to get caught up in rushing from one responsibility to then next and lose track of the moments. However, doing so releases your body’s natural stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is meant to help us react to urgent, stressful situations in order to assure our survival. It releases sugar into our blood and increases our heart rate and blood pressure to allow us to run or fight or do whatever else we need to do to get out of danger. It stores energy as fat to help us fend off starvation, and it is a strong anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. However, when cortisol levels remain elevated for a long time, the body adapts by decreasing the amount of cortisol it releases and/or causing the receptors to which cortisol binds to become cortisol-resistant. The net effect is just the opposite of the acute cortisol response: widespread inflammation and increased pain result. Fortunately, managing stress can help reverse this process. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness – non-judgemental awareness of the present moment – helps lower cortisol levels, decrease pain and depression, and increase quality of life. Practicing mindfulness releases opioid-like chemical that are powerful pain and stress relievers. These chemicals are 18 to 33 times stronger than morphine, but without the side effects. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Below are just a few of many options.
Lay down in a quiet room away from any distractions. Put one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. Slowly breath in by pushing your stomach out into your hand. Your hand on your chest should not move much. Breath out by letting your stomach fall. Repeat this process trying to focus on the rise and fall of your belly and the flow of air into and out of your lungs. Try not to let other thoughts enter your mind as you are breathing. If your mind wanders, acknowledge that it did and then re-direct your attention to your breathing. Start with 2-5 minutes, but try to work up to at least 10 minutes daily. This may feel like a long time at first, but if you do this regularly, it will get easier to stay focused, and you will notice that you feel much more relaxed afterwards.
Take a walk and focus on all of your different senses. Take note of the feeling of the ground under your feet and with the breeze on your face. Take note of the sounds, smells, and sights around you. Try not to categorize them as good or bad, just as factual observations. i.e. “I see a dog” or “I smell rotting bananas” rather than “That’s a cute dog” or “That smells horrible.” As you walk, try to stay focused on the present. Don’t think about the stressful situation that just happened at work or the pile of laundry that you have to do when you get home. Simply enjoy the moment, and if you happen to see some, stop and smell the roses.
Mindfulness meditation is a form of Buddhist “Zen” meditation. This is traditionally done seated. Before you begin, set a timer for the length of time you want to meditate so you don’t have to think about it. Start by getting in a comfortable sitting position with your legs cross, arms relaxed on your legs, and your gaze downward or eyes closed. Try to focus on the feelings from your head down to your toes. Breath in and out using your diaphragm as above, and focus on the flow of your breath. If you notice your mind wandering, simply acknowledge that it did and return your attention to your body and your breathing. It is hard to stay focused, especially if you are new to meditation, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if this happens. Just keep redirecting your thoughts any time your mind wanders. When your timer goes off, take a moment to notice how relaxed your body feels before getting up and resuming your daily activities.
Take a few minutes at the beginning or end of each day to focus on 3 things you are grateful for. Write them down each day. While you are thinking about these things, you can’t be focused on negative or stressful thoughts at the same time. When you are having a stressful day, looking back through your journal can help remind you of all the things you have to be thankful for and help distract you from negative thoughts that pull down your mood and increase your stress levels.
Reframing negative thoughts
Negative thoughts are toxic to our health. Negative thinking increases cortisol levels which can lead to chronic inflammation, increased pain, anxiety, depression, and can even decrease the number of nerve connections in our brains. Fortunately, most situations are not inherently good or bad…their value is based on how we view them…such as a glass being half-full vs. half-empty. Reframing negative thoughts into more positive ones can help make you happier and healthier. Here are some examples:
|Negative Thought||Reframed thought|
|“My back hurts whenever I stand for longer than 10 minutes, and I have to sit down.”||“I can stand 10 minutes before my back starts to hurt. If I pay attention to my posture, I will be able to stand longer before I have to sit down.”|
|“This pain is horrible. My doctor says my discs are shot and my spine is degenerated. I don’t think I’ll ever recover.”||“The pain may be bad, but I can still do a lot of things. If I work at it, I will be able to do more despite my disc degeneration.”|
|“I can’t go walking with my friends because of my pain. I don’t want to hold them back.”||“I can walk with my friends, but I may have to slow down or take breaks. If they are real friends, they will be happy to see me even if I’m not at 100%.”|