When your brain shifts into overload, your sympathetic nervous system—which controls your body's fight or flight response—hits the gas pedal. Basically, this means your adrenal glands and heart pump faster so you can outrun that saber-toothed tiger your body thinks is coming for you (be it real or perceived). That gas pedal is engaged until something changes, or you force you brain to hit the brakes (easier said than done). It goes without saying that many of us are pressing down hard on our inner gas pedals right now, giving the growing intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic and our need to self-quarantine and practice social distancing.
So, to help combat at least a little of that stress, I've culled five ways to hit the brakes and give your parasympathetic nervous system a pause—no pill required.
Five Minute Meditation
Common thoughts when it comes to mediation include: "I don't have time to 'om' it out on the floor for an hour." Or "There's no way my brain will cooperate, I can't do it." But the truth is, if you have five minutes and a favorite place to sit, then you can meditate. Yes, just five minutes can be effective. And it's OK for thoughts to pass through your mind; in fact, it happens to everyone.
When I signed on for transcendental meditation in 2008, I had one of the most active minds ever. I have likened it to a three-ring circus, dancing bears included. Meditation brought down my high-level, gotta go-go-go, never-ending-to-do list levels of stress and solidly grounded me. I have a distinct recollection of what my circus mind was like; however, it's now a distant memory. A meditation practice, even just a few minutes, positively impacts the sympathetic nervous system. Among other benefits, it will make you feel calm, clear, centered and happy.
Here's how to start. First, have a timer nearby, or download the Insight Timer app (which comes complete with heavenly singing bowl bell sounds). Find a comfortable space, whether it's on the bed, propped up against pillows, or curled up in a favorite chair. Sit comfortably with your head and spine in an upright, relaxed position. (FYI: Your head resting on a pillow with closed eyes is called a nap, not meditation, friend.)
Then just breathe. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. As an unknown yogi said, "Watch your thoughts like clouds in the sky." No judging. No need to take action. No need to follow the thoughts—just breathe and let them be.
When the five-minute bell sounds, take a deep breath and slowly raise your gaze. Notice how you feel. That's it. That's all. You did it, circus mind and all.
There's an App for That
The award-winning Calm app gets 4.8 out of 5 ratings and reviews in Apple's app store. For $12.99 a month, you'll get access to their Sleep Stories, which will help you fall asleep, as well as music to help you focus and relax and lessons on how to learn to meditate.
The 5/4/3/2/1 Method
This calming exercise will bring your thoughts back to the moment. You can journal your experience or simply make mental notes.
- Name five things you can see (the comfy throw you'll curl up in today, the art on your wall...)
- Name four things you can hear (birds, the rustle of the ferns blowing in the breeze…)
- Name three things you can feel (your oh-so-clean hands, the softness of Fido's fur…)
- Name two things you can smell (the English muffin in the toaster, a beloved body lotion that you're finally using…)
- Name one thing you can taste (that English muffin, a fresh cuppa genmaicha tea…)
Employ the Navy SEAL Box Breathing Technique
It's no surprise that your breath is the key to focus and calm. And as you can imagine, if Navy SEALs practice this exercise, it can truly be done anywhere. Some say you will feel the effects in 90 seconds, but five minutes is recommended. Do what works for you—no pressure.
- Expel all the air from your lungs and, once empty, hold for four long seconds
- Breathe in through your nose for four long seconds
- With full lungs, hold your breath for four long seconds (remain expansive, rather than tense)
- Smoothly exhale through your nose for four long seconds
Grab a Cup of Something Warm, Sans TV
The simple act of holding a warm beverage is a meditation in itself. Extra bonus points if you turn off the television and put on a jazzy cafe radio playlist. Be mindful of the moment, whether it's quiet or not. Maybe even take notice of those five things you can see, or breathe in for four long counts...and out…