Do you remember the last time you were so absorbed in a suspenseful movie or masterful novel that the rest of the world dropped away? For most of us, it’s even easier to get caught up in our own stories, interpretations, and emotions – becoming so identified with a mood that it completely colors our worldview.
Consider this common scenario: You’re at work when your manager calls and asks to immediately see you in her office. Depending on your typical thought process, you may immediately begin to worry, “What did I do wrong? I wonder if my job is on the line . . . if I get fired, it could take a long time to find another job in this economy.” Your dread builds and you really do not want to go see your manager. Or (particularly if you predominant dosha is Pitta), you may find yourself getting angry, thinking, “After all the work I’ve put in, I’m not putting up with any criticism. This company is lucky to have me here.” You head toward your manager’s office feeling belligerent and ready to defend yourself.
Whether you react in fear or in anger, the thoughts in your mind create stress in your body. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises, your breath becomes shallow, your adrenalin surges, and you produce higher levels of cortisol. Your ancient fight-or-flight response is gearing up, but no wooly mammoths are roaming through the office – “just” thoughts convincing you that your survival is at stake.
While your thoughts may seem wispy in comparison with a hungry 10-ton predator, they clearly have immense power. Something happens that violates your sense of how things should be, and you perceive danger ― whether real or imagined. Numerous studies show chronic stress accelerates aging and makes you prone to more serious illness, including, heart disease, stomach ulcers, autoimmune diseases, cancer, insomnia, migraine headaches, panic attacks, and depression.
Fortunately, there are many valuable practices that can help you go beyond the primal fight-or-flight response. You can learn to experience a restful response – a mind-body state that is as natural as the stress response, but infinitely more peaceful and healing.
1. Connect to Your Body. While the mind is constantly flitting to thoughts of the future and memories of the past, the body lives in the only moment that truly exists: the present. One of the best ways to relieve stress is to go out of your mind and tune in to your body. Allow yourself to feel all your bodily sensations, including ones that your mind might label unpleasant, such as tightness in your jaw, churning in your stomach, or stiffness in your neck. Your body never doubts itself and it will guide you toward the most evolutionary choices.
2. Meditate. Meditation gives you access to the inner silence and calm that lies beneath the mind’s noisy internal dialogue. Meditation allows you to experience profound relaxation that dissolves fatigue and long-standing stresses. Studies have found that a daily meditation practice can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decrease anxiety and depression, and reverse the biological markers of aging.
Given the numerous healing benefits of meditation, the Chopra Center offers instruction in Primordial Sound Meditation, at all of our programs and events. In addition, there are certified Primordial Sound Meditation teachers throughout the world. Click here to find one in your area.
3. Understand Your Unique Stress Response. Your mind-body constitution (known as your dosha) plays a great role in how stress affects you. Here are the stress patterns of the three main doshas:
Vata: Those with predominantly Vata constitutions have the greatest tendency toward anxiety and worry. Normally creative and enthusiastic, in the face of stress, Vatas tend to blame themselves for their problems and become extremely nervous and scattered.
Pitta: Pitta types are usually warm and loving, but if they’re out of balance, typically react to stress by finding fault with other people and becoming angry.
Kapha: The most even-tempered dosha is Kapha. Kapha types are usually easygoing and gentle, but when faced with overwhelming conflict or stress, they may withdraw and refuse to deal with the situation.
Ayurveda offers specific recommendations for each mind-body type, including the most effective ways to cope with stress. Take the Dosha Quiz here to identify your mind-body type and learn more healing techniques.
4. Practice Yoga. Yoga is another timeless healing practice for releasing stress and the damaging effects of the fight-or-flight response. Not only is yoga an excellent physical exercise that increases your flexibility and strength, but it also balances the mind and body, calming the nervous system, increasing the production of stress-relieving hormones, and releasing stored toxins.
With a regular practice, you begin to experience a sense of calm and wellbeing that extends beyond the yoga mat into your daily life. You gradually stop dwelling on stressful thoughts and feel more lighthearted and joyful, even in the face of life’s inevitable upsets and disappointments. Learn more about yoga here.
5. Learn the Skills of Conscious Communication. When we aren’t able to clearly communicate our needs, we experience a lot of stress and frustration in our lives. Fortunately, conscious communication isn’t an inborn gift but a learnable skill. With practice, you can learn to express your needs, ask for what you want, and create more fulfilling relationships. The skills of conscious communication are a vital component of the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program and our emotional healing workshop, Healing the Heart. Click here to learn a powerful conscious communication technique that you can begin using right now.
To paraphrase the master teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, life sometimes feels like one insult after another. Still the goal isn’t to try to control the flow of life so that we’ll never experience stress or frustration again; the secret lies instead in giving ourselves a great deal of patience and compassion as we learn to befriend our mind. No matter how long we’ve been stuck in habitual thought patterns, we can learn to remain peaceful and joyful even when life is stressful.