When you’re under stress, it is so tempting to fantasize about being not stressed. You imagine feeling peaceful and relaxed later–when you get home from work, or when this project is finished, or when this exam is over, or when you get to the beach, or maybe when the kids grow up, or maybe when you retire.
But fantasizing about being unstressed at some other time or place doesn’t help you in this moment, right now, right here, in the midst of the stress. And if you don’t do something to unstress yourself here and now, there is real risk that that the stress, because you are holding on to it, will become part of you.
Yes, patterns of stress, if not released, seem to get lodged in the body and mind. They can make you tight, jumpy, caustic. They can distort your posture, influence your beliefs about life, limit your ability to listen to others, and add unpleasant tones to your voice. You become a stressful, stressed-out person.
The techniques below are not about eliminating the “cause” of your stress. Nor are they about helping you become a saintly being who never picks up stress and who radiates calm everywhere she goes. (Chasing that ideal is something that can make you even more stressed.)
Instead, they are intended to help you unstress now. They give you something to do as soon as you get stressed, or as soon as you realize that you’re stressed, or as soon as your friends tell you that you’re stressed. They help avoid getting stuck with the stress. And they help you not pass your stress onto someone else.
When you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s natural to want to scream. But the consequences of screaming in public could cause you more stress. On the other hand, suppressing a very natural need to scream—even unconsciously–may cause you to tighten your diaphragm, clench your jaw, and turn your graceful hands into fighting fists. And you wouldn’t want to get stuck like that.
A good belly laugh, however, can blast through these tight muscles, release the stress, and restore your sense of flow. Thanks to the work of Dr. Madan Kataria, inventor of Laughter Yoga, we know that even forced laughter gives you many of the physiological and psychological benefits of genuine laughter. And, remarkably, if you keep forced laughter going for fifteen seconds or so, you will very likely start laughing for real. In other words, if you fake it, you will make it. You will laugh yourself silly.
If laughter isn’t your cup of tea, try singing. Singing can have beneficial effects on your body and mind that are quite similar to laughing. Singing can free your breathing, loosen your jaw muscles, and connect you to something beautiful (at least, beautiful to you). Singing is particularly useful for stress relief when you are in your car, stuck in traffic. No one can hear you … so why not release your inner Elvis? Instead of blowing your horn, just sing your heart out. And if singing a song doesn’t feel right, just vocalize. Start by making meaningless sounds—simply expressing the tension. In other words, just babble like a baby. Before long, you will be bopping like the best.
Unfortunately, when you’re stressed it’s not so easy to relax, even if you want to. So “trying to relax” is often unsuccessful. But as stress can be understood as a build-up of tension, and there is a lot of potential energy in that tension, you can try using that energy to do something physical. Use your stress as a springboard to get you moving—to run around the block, do some jumping jacks, dance. Converted into energy, in this way, stress becomes a useful tool to invigorate yourself—it can put you in a happier state of mind. And as there is increasing evidence for the health benefits of short bouts of cardiovascular exercise, it could be that your stress—if it gets you moving—could turn out to be a great boon to your health. Think of it this way: If you treated each instance of stress as a prompt to do ten pushups, imagine how quickly you’d get fit.
Like any physical activity, cleaning is much easier to do when you feel energized. (If you don’t believe this, try cleaning your house when you are depressed.) And there is nothing like stress for getting you energized. The trick is to learn to convert your stress signals into calls to action. So just channel all your stress into cleaning something: your house, your office, your yard. Put all that stress into mopping the floor, or throwing out some junk, or removing that grime from the oven. Even if this doesn’t clear your stress completely, imagine how happy you’ll be, later, at how clean everything is. Your stress will have given you a clean space in which to enjoy yourself when you are not-so-stressed.
Sad to say, but in a world that values confidence and power over vulnerability and passivity, crying has a bad reputation. Many people fear that if they give in to their need to cry, they will become overwhelmed, embarrass themselves or cause a scene, or be judged as someone who can’t get the job done. The sad irony here is that crying is natural. It may be a perfectly appropriate response to the situation. So if you feel the need to cry, but are afraid of getting overwhelmed, here’s a tip: sit up straight. While collapsing on the floor and thrashing around might give you a bigger release of stress, straight-back crying has a kind of nobility and poise. It allows you to acknowledge your feelings and get some sense of release without collapsing into a heap.
As stress can cause a constriction in breathing, a common correction is to take some deep, slow breaths. But as this might not do the trick, you can double the effectiveness of deep breathing by adding a little sound – in others words, by making a good sigh. There is something so rejuvenating about a sigh—the way it forces you to drop your shoulders and relax your jaw muscles, and release the tension in your torso. A good sigh also brings your mind and body into alignment: in the moment, you are fully present in the sigh. If you need a more powerful, faster-acting version of a sigh, then try exaggerating your sigh, making the sound bigger. Choose to express your whole stressed-out being through the sound and gesture of that sigh: Aaaaaaahhhh. You may even discover the funny thing about a good sigh: Although often considered to be an expression of exasperation, a good sigh is very close to a moan of pleasure, and the deeper you do it, the better it gets.
Meditate for a Moment.
We think of meditation as requiring a lot of time and some very special conditions, such as a retreat on top of a mountain. But it is possible to get some significant benefits from meditation in short bursts, if you learn how. And the more you practice this approach, the more powerful it will be for you. For once you have found the place of peace within you, you know where it lives and how to find it. So you can go back to it whenever you want.
The trick here is to make sure to learn this skill when you are not so stressed, so you get familiar with it under good conditions. Then, when you do get stressed, you can use the fact of being stressed as an emergency signal to meditate for a moment. In other words, as soon as you think, “I’m too stressed to meditate” that’s exactly when you should try a moment of meditation. The short video above gives you a basic introduction.