According to MRI scans, the hippocampus—the part of the brain in charge of learning and memory—thickens after only a couple of months of mindful meditation. Brain-cell density also decreases in the amygdala (responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress). Those physical brain changes can alter your mood.
What calm people know about stress:
Two people perform the exact same job under the same conditions, yet one is stressed, overwhelmed, and hates his job; the other is happy and breezes through his day. How can this be? The latest studies in neuroscience show us that stress-related behaviors are hard-wired into the brain—they’re less about our environment, but more about how we individually react it. When people in various high-pressure organizations try these tools, more than 90 percent experienced a change in their stress levels; more than 75 percent experienced improvement in creative problem solving, well being, and work and family relationships. Here are some you can start now to train your mind to react to stress with calmness and clarity.
This excerpt was taken from The End of Stress by Don Joseph Goewey, reprinted with permission of Beyond Word Publishing/Atria Books, Hillsboro, Oregon.
To start your day:
Jumping out of bed and going straight through a hectic morning routine can frame your day in stress. Use this tool to put yourself in a peaceful mindset that sets you up for a positive outlook for the rest of the day.Try: Wake up 15 minutes earlier than usual. Find a quiet place to sit and close your eyes. Tilt your head toward your heart and follow your breathing, feeling each breath open your heart and enliven your brain with oxygen. Feel gratitude for another day with the people you love. Aim for a rewarding day. Tell yourself you’ll be positive and peaceful, no matter what happens.
To realize your stressors:
It’s difficult to avoid stress if you don’t know what prompts it in the first place. This tool will help you acknowledge your stressors and shift your attitude toward them, giving you more control over your thoughts and feelings. Try: First, acknowledge what prompts your pessimistic thoughts. Don’t try to change these triggers; simply observe them. Thoughts have no power if you don’t believe them, so tell yourself, “This thought or feeling exists in me, not in reality.” Tell yourself, “I could see peace instead of this.” Focusing on a peaceful alternative will help you perceive the world in a more positive way. Feel your attitude shift. Remember that although you have negative thoughts and feelings, they don’t define you.
To get to the heart of your stress:
Stress often doesn’t stem from just one situation, but rather from your lower brain’s catastrophizing the event and jumping to unrealistic worst-case scenarios. This process will help you get to the bottom of what’s truly stressing you out. Try: Start with a simple question: “What am I afraid of?” Write your answer on the top of a sheet of paper. (For instance: “I’m afraid I won’t have enough money for our vacation.”) Then follow up with, “If the fear I just wrote were true, what would I be afraid of?” (For instance: “I’m afraid my family will hate me if I can’t afford vacation.”) Continue writing the answers until you feel you’ve found the root of your stress. Now, revisit each statement, framing them as facts instead of fears. (For instance: “I won’t have enough money for a vacation.”) Ask yourself whether each one is true. Will you really be unable to pay for your trip? Will your family truly hate you if you don’t go?
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To zap stress in 3 minutes:
Studies have shown meditation to be an effective way to remove clutter from your mind. This meditative tool fits into your schedule as you see fit—it can take as little as three minutes, or you can work your way up to 20—and helps rewire your brain to achieve a quiet, fully present, stress-free experience. Try: Start by sitting comfortably with your feet on the ground and your hands in your lap. Close your eyes and follow your breath for a few moments. Then observe what your mind is thinking and feeling—but don’t judge or try to change your thoughts. Toward the end of the process, set all of these feelings and thoughts aside, allowing a deeper sense of self to emerge as you achieve freedom from thought.
To appreciate happy moments:
Peaceful moments can be fleeting. This tool helps your brain establish it as a habit, which can make future feelings of happiness more vivid and long lasting. Try: Whenever you feel a moment of peace, consciously take note. Enjoy the moment and let it imprint on your brain.
To combat anxiety attacks:
When anxious thoughts strike, you have a 90-second window to intervene before you face a stress reaction that might take more than an hour to recover from. This shortcut to mindfulness will help you avoid a full-blown anxiety attack. Try: If you feel like stressful thoughts are building into a big reaction, imagine a “clear button” at the center of your palm. Press the button with the index finger of the opposite hand. Keep pressing it as you picture it signaling your stress response system to calm down. Count to three, taking a deep breath with each count and picturing each number as a color. On your final exhale, let go of the stressor and come back to the present moment. If one try doesn’t help, repeat the process two or three times until it works.
To reframe stress into peace:
Being at peace stimulates a higher brain function, helping you come up with more creative, intelligent solutions. Reframe a difficult situation into a peaceful one using this tool. Try: Think back to a peaceful and happy time, which will give you a better attitude toward the challenge that’s making you anxious. Use the memory to thwart fear and invoke calmness and clarity, making you feel larger than the situation.
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To envision—and achieve—success:
Using this tool daily will help you amplify your anticipation of success, leading to more of the health, wealth, and love you desire. Try: Find a comfortable position and close your eyes. Think of a current goal, and imagine your how your life would be this moment if your ideal outcome had already happened. Use all five senses and broaden your vision to include people, colors, and other meaningful features. Feel the feelings you’d feel if you reached your desired outcome, making the emotions as strong as possible. Let the emotions become real, and don’t stop your body from smiling with joy or sighing from relief. Hold these emotions for as long as you can, but no more than a minute. When you’re done, let everything go.