Who has time to worry about stress? After all, if we had time to manage our stress, we would not be stressed in the first place! This retort, unfortunately, is often our first response to the subject of stress. Yet no matter how busy we become in our daily routines, we cannot afford to ignore our reactions to stressful circumstances.
Stress has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, immune system disorders, certain cancers, alcoholism, obesity and more. In fact, recent research has strengthened the link to heart disease, suggesting that the way we handle stress may be a factor in whether we develop injured blood vessels or blocked arteries, two conditions that lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Stepping Back From Your Stress
You cannot be in a state of stress and a state of relaxation at the same time. However, you can control how your body responds to stressful situations by adopting relaxation practices, such as meditation. To date, more than 1,300 studies have documented the effectiveness of meditation as a health practice, including lowering heart rate, muscle tension, stress hormone secretion, and resting blood pressure. Many hospitals and medical clinics use meditation in stress management and other health promotion programs.
Though many forms of meditation exist, they generally produce the same healthful benefits. Meditation costs nothing, requires no special equipment and takes little investment in time. Research has shown that just 15 to 20 minutes of meditation twice a day is enough to produce beneficial results, and some experts believe even shorter sessions can be effective. What matters most is consistency--meditate every day, if possible.
How does meditation work? Learning to observe your thoughts and feelings as they happen allows you to step back from them and control your responses, rather than automatically reacting and getting caught up in the constant activity of your mind. Just as you train your body through a consistent program of exercise, you train your mind through a consistent practice of meditation.
Easy Ways to Get Started
Michele Hebert, international mind-body health and fitness presenter and owner of Higher Health and Fitness in La Jolla, California, offers the following three tips for beginning your own meditation program:
1. Seek a quiet environment. Find your own space where you feel calm, such as a secluded room, a park or a place of worship.
2. Sit with your spine erect. Be seated in a chair or in a simple cross-legged position on the floor or on a pillow.
3. Let go of control. Instead of restricting your meditation experience, try to maintain a receptive attitude.
Once you become oriented, Hebert suggests the following three commonly used techniques to focus your meditation:
1. Watching Your Breath. This technique simply means observing your breath as you sit quietly. Follow your breath as it flows in and out, and notice the space between the in breath and the out breath. When your mind wanders, which is natural, bring it back to your breath. Approach this process as a calm observer.
2. Object Concentration. Focus your gaze on an object, such as a flower, a candle flame, or a favorite setting. The goal is to bring your mind to one point of focus in the present moment.
3. Mantra Meditation. In mantra meditation, repeat a word or series of words to yourself to gain control of your restless mind. Your mantra does not have to be of foreign origin; use words that represent health and serenity to you, such as joy, peace, and harmony. Once again, as your mind naturally wanders, bring it back to your mantra.
At first, you may have difficulty meditating for very long. Do not give up. Setting aside your thoughts, however brief, may be one of the most important things you do for your health today.