While all these changes can help, there is one thing that is more powerful than any other tool when it comes to combating stress: meditation.
Meditation is something a lot of people don’t fully understand. There is the assumption among some that meditation is somehow ‘mystical’ or that it is necessarily linked with religion. Neither of these things is true.
There are many different types of meditation from transcendental, to mindfulness, to religious meditation but all of them really just have one thing in common: they involve the purposeful direction of attention inward.
Whether it is reflecting on your own thoughts, praying or just sitting silently and trying to clear your mind, meditation involves making the conscious decision to take control of what you’re thinking and to try and stop your thoughts from jumping around everywhere. And when you do this, you will find it has a truly profound effect on your ability to stay calm in stressful situations, to control the nature of your thoughts and to combat many of the negative effects of stress.
In fact, studies show us that meditation can improve the areas of your brain that stress destroys – actually increasing the amount of grey matter in the brain and the amount of whole-brain connectivity. Furthermore, it can help to improve areas of the brain specifically related to motivation, attention and willpower. One study shows that it only takes 8 weeks to see amazing positive changes to the brain and restoration of grey matter in particular.
People who use meditation will usually report that they feel generally calmer, happier and more at peace throughout the day. This results in a better mood, heightened attention and general improvements in cognitive function and productivity.
All these things mean that meditation is actually the perfect antidote to stress and can undo a lot of the damage that meditation causes. Apart from anything else, meditation will help you to take a small break from the constant stress of daily life and from the racing thoughts that come with this. More to the point though, it will teach you to take control of racing thoughts at will and simply to put them to one side.
Meanwhile, allowing your brain some time to enjoy this highly relaxed state will encourage the reparation of neurons and the cementing of things you’ve learned through the day.
Finally, it makes sense that areas controlling self-control would develop during the process of meditation. Meditation uses certain brain areas and we now know that the more you use an area of the brain, the more it grows. This works just like using a muscle and is a process known as ‘brain plasticity’.
And by practicing reflecting on your own mental state and being more aware of your own emotions, it only follows that you would better be able to control it and to avoid letting stress or impulse get the better of you in future.
How to Get Started With Meditation
So this is what meditation does for you and why it is the ideal antidote to stress.
The next question is how can you get started with meditation? Do you need to attend a class? Do you need to be a Buddhist monk?
Fortunately, meditation is actually pretty simple and this is what ends up making it hard even in some cases. A lot of people who first try meditation feel that it is too simple and thus assume they must be doing something wrong!
The easiest way to get started if you’re a complete beginner, is to try guided meditation. Guided meditation means using a pre-recorded script that will talk you through everything you need to be doing at any given stage. Essentially, this works to help direct your attention and show you what you need to be reflecting on or paying attention to at any given time.
A good one to try is ‘Headspace’. This is available as a website and as an app and in either case, you’ll find a selection of guided meditations to walk you through. The only downside is that headspace is not free and that after the first 10 sessions, you’ll have to start paying.
Fortunately, those first ten sessions are more than enough to give you a taste of meditation and to teach you the basics. From here, you’ll then be able to take what you learned and re-apply it in order to continue on your own.
If you’d rather not start a paid system though, then you can always use one of the many free YouTube videos that will do the same thing!
In general, most guided meditation will take you through the following steps.
To start with, you will sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes. Set a timer for 10 minutes, or however long you have until you need to be doing other things. While you should be comfortable, you shouldn’t be too reclined or generally put yourself in danger of falling asleep!
The next thing to do, is to bring your attention to the sounds and the world around you. This means just listening to the sounds and noticing what you can hear. This is an interesting exercise in and of itself: if you actually stop to listen you’ll be able to pick up on a lot more information than you were probably previously aware of.
Don’t strain to listen but instead just let the sounds come to you – whether those be barks from dogs next door, the sound of birds or perhaps chatter from someone in another building that you can hear through the walls.
After you have done this for a little while, the next step is to bring your attention in to yourself and to notice how your body feels. This means noticing the way that your weight is distributed on your buttocks. Is it evenly distributed? Are you leaning slightly to one side? Likewise, try to notice the air against your skin, the temperature, any aches and pains etc.
You can then try the ‘body scan’. This is something that some people use as the main basis for their meditation and it involves focussing on each part of your own body, starting right from the head and then moving down the body slowly from the face, to the chest, to the legs, to the feet. Each time you get to a point on your body, make a conscious effort to release any tension you might be holding there and to relax.
You can even turn your attention inward further by seeing if you can feel the beating of your own heart, or the movement of your diaphragm.
Either way, we’re now going to focus on breathing. This is something that a lot of people will again use as the entire basis of their meditation. Simply count the breaths in and the breaths out and each time you get to ten, start again. The aim now is to have all of your focus and all of your attention on the breathing and not to be distracted by anything outside.
Now, from time to time, you will notice that your thoughts start to drift and that you end up thinking about other things. This is a fantastic example of just how hard we find it to focus on any one thing for a given period of time. It’s a fantastic example of just why you need this meditation!
Don’t fret when it happens though. This is the worst thing you can do! Instead, simply ‘notice’ that your mind has wandered and then bring your attention back to your breathing again. Each time it drifts off, just re-center and don’t worry about it.
Focussing on the breathing is simply giving us a way to center our thoughts and to remove the distractions that normally interrupt. This could just as easily work by focusing on anything else: for example, some people will focus on a single word called a ‘mantra’. A mantra is what is often used in transcendental meditation for instance and might mean just repeating the word ‘Om’ in order to busy your internal monologue.
Finally, the last stage of our guided meditation is going to be to just let the thoughts wander freely and to let them go wherever they want to.
This last stage is essentially mindfulness meditation. The idea is that you’re going to detach yourself from those thoughts and simply ‘watch them’ rather than feeling emotionally affected by them.
This last part is the part where you get to really relax and stop ‘fighting’ your brain and it’s a great way to end. Then bring your focus back to your breathing, then back to your body, back to the world around you and eventually open your eyes.
How to Enhance Your Sleep to Enhance Your Day
Forget smart drugs, the single best way to enhance your cognitive powers and become more focused is to get more sleep. And forget supplements, the single best way to accelerate your muscle gains and improve your strength is to get more sleep. There are countless articles out there that detail ‘life hacks’ and other strategies you can use to sleep better.
These range between lying on spikey mats (which is nonsense), to taking ZMA (which doesn’t do much), to eating honey before bed (which might just be helpful but is negligible). More efficient then is to look at some small, simple changes you can make to your routine that will have a major impact on the quality and quantity of your sleep.
There’s that ‘kaizen’ again!
Number one: Take a hot shower or bath before bed. This helps to encourage the production of growth hormone and melatonin and it also helps to relax the muscles – far more effectively than taking valerian root. As your body cools down, you’ll sink into a much deeper and more restorative sleep and you’ll also save yourself time in the morning.
Number two: Open the window a-jar. We sleep much better when our environment is slightly cool. Let some cool air into your room but make sure you can keep warm with your duvet.
Number three: Go for a run or walk in the morning that day. Getting more exercise helps you sleep more, as does getting fresh air and vitamin D. You can also supplement with vitamin D in the morning – if you live in the UK like me then there’s a good chance you’re deficient.
Number four: Take half an hour or even just 15 minutes before bed to wind down and do some reading. Avoid looking at mobile screens or computers if possible, as the light from these increases cortisol production.
I experimented with wearing blue-blocking shades before bed for a while but truth be told, you look like a nob and it’s pretty impractical – especially if you’re in a relationship. Taking a little while out to ‘unwind’ will help you forget the stresses of the day while getting your body into a good ‘sleep mode’.
Number five: Most important of all is simply to prioritize your sleep and to give it the attention it deserves. Stop watching YouTube videos until 2am in the morning and start getting into a routine.
Number six: Of course you also need to look after the environment you’re sleeping in. Comfortable pyjamas and duvet covers, along with curtains that actually block out the light and an absence of blinking LEDs will make a huge difference.
Waking Up Full of Beans
Meanwhile, I highly recommend investing in some kind of ‘daylight alarm’ (such as those made by Lumie). These are designed to emit a light that is more similar to sunlight in terms of the wavelength and will come on gradually as it approaches the time you set the alarm. This then gradually rouses you out of sleep and if all goes well, you’ll wake naturally before the alarm goes off.
As a result, you’ll feel significantly more awake and well rested. Even if it takes the alarm to wake you though, you’ll be waking up in a light environment from a much lighter state of sleep. You feel far less ‘sleep inertia’ and you’ll really notice the difference when you’re forced to wake up without it. This is especially effective for those who struggle with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Trust me, this is one change that will really make a highly noticeable difference. Just think about the difference you’re now making: previously, you were sleeping deeply at which point a loud alarm would suddenly startle you awake. This would jolt you out of sleep with a start and you’d wake up into a pitch black room and have to drag yourself out of bed.
Instead, you’re now coming around gently, waking up gradually and naturally as the room gets lighter and then being nudged over the edge by the actual alarm. And when you open your eyes, the room is already light and you’re already ready to go!
Get Up on Time Every Time
For those who struggle to get out of bed without hitting the ‘snooze’ button, a daylight alarm can help. If you need a little extra help, then try waking up in ‘stages’. Instead of forcing yourself to leap out of bed, agree that you’ll just prop yourself up into a more upright position and turn on the light when the alarm sounds.
If you must hit snooze then that’s fine once, but the second time it goes off you’re then going to grab a book, your phone or something else that will prevent you from dozing off. Absent mindedly look through this. Then, you should find you’re awake enough to get up. Getting up slowly is not only healthier, it’s much easier to do when you’re feeling low on will-power.
Why You Feel Ill in the Morning
If you find you still can’t wake up effectively in the morning, then it may be that you’re struggling with a number of potential issues.
If you have a scratchy throat or you feel ill, then below you’ll find some possible causes and solutions:
Allergy – You can develop hay fever at any age and
symptoms that are unnoticeable during the day can be much worse during
the night when you’ve been breathing in dander or pollen all night.
Unfortunately, most antihistamines will leave you feeling groggy too, so
you’ll need to find another way to clean your environment.
Mold – Mold poisoning can lead to a number of
unpleasant short term and long term effects. If you have
mycotoxin-producing black mold it can even give you asthma or eczema.
Even just breathing in mold spores from less harmful types can leave you
with a scratchy throat and a poor night’s sleep. If you notice the air
smelling damp, then consider calling in a mold remediation company – it
could be behind the walls or under the floorboards.
Dehydration – It’s common to get dehydrated during
the night. Make sure you drink enough before you fall asleep and have
some water to hand. If you struggle with this one, you may want to
consider trying chia seeds which absorb several times their mass’ worth
Low blood sugar – Breakfast is so named because you
are ‘breaking your fast’. As you can imagine, going 10 hours without
eating can leave you a little groggy so it’s possible you’re struggling
with low blood sugar.
Something that is thought to help this is a spoon of honey, which
contains both slow release and fast release sugar, providing you with a
steady supply of energy through the night. This might seem like a bit of
a random tangent but it really isn’t – many of us wake up in the
morning feeling sub-par but aren’t quite sure why. Often it comes down
to factors in the environment or in your overall health like these and
as we’ve seen, it should be relatively easy to solve them in many cases!
CBT for Getting to Sleep
Finally, if you struggle getting to sleep because you can’t stop your
mind racing, then address the way you are thinking about sleep. There’s a
lot more to learn about CBT and it really is a fantastic tool but for
now all you need to know is that it involves changing the way you think
about a problem.
In this case, you’re going to stop putting pressure on yourself to sleep
– if you feel stressed that you’re not asleep yet then you’ll work
yourself up and be far less likely to be able to drift off! Instead of
getting frustrated then, focus on using the opportunity to just relax
and enjoy lying down to have a think/feel free from the pressures of the
Even if you’re just relaxing, this will still offer you some
recuperative benefit. What you’ll find though, is that the moment you
manage to enjoy ‘just relaxing’, you’ll fall asleep. Don’t force
yourself to drift off, that’s an oxymoron; just get comfortable, enjoy
the moment and let your body take care of the rest when you really need
to drift off.
5 Great Tips To Handle Stress
Stress has always been a part of our lives. In this hectic time, people lead an increasingly stressful life. Experts state that a little stress can be good; it keeps you sharp and ready to move forward, and is sometimes vital for achieving optimum performance. However, medical research has determined that prolonged stress is very bad for the body, and can block the body’s natural ability to repair, regenerate and protect itself. Over 90% of disease is caused by stress. Stress is both a physical and psychological response. It can lead to chronic disease, obesity, insomnia, deteriorating relationships, depression, and more.
Stress is such a powerful and harmful force that it is vital that you
learn effective stress management techniques to live a successful,
happy, and healthy life. We must remember that we will always come
across inevitable factors that cause pressure and anxiety on us. What we
do not know is that it is not really the problems that are difficult to
deal with, but our attitude towards them. So basically, the cause of
stress is your attitude toward these things. What, then, is an effective
way to deal with stressors?
Below are 5 great tips to handle stress.
1. Identify what makes you stressful and uneasy. Making a list of your
stressful experiences is useful. Immediately deal with the issues that
you can change, for instance waking up earlier for work in the morning,
not leaving things till the last minute, and delegating tasks in case
you are taking responsibility for everything. Forget about the issues
that you cannot influence like being stuck in a traffic jam or not
getting into the elevator because there is no room for you.
2. Calm down. A few minutes break would do you good. Wash your face,
breath slowly and deeply, and notice if there is tension in any part of
your body and release it. You can also listen to relaxing music, or call
a friend. Releasing your inner feelings to a friend is healthy option.
3. It will pass and it will be over before you know it. Remind yourself
that the stressful event will end sooner or later can make you see the
positive sides of things. At the same time, calm down your emotions and
think of what is the best thing to do rather than take your energy away
from what needs to be done.
4. Know yourself. Ask yourself: What triggers your anxiety? If for
example it is your job, then maybe it’s time for you to reconsider
whether it would be best to find a less stressful job. You can also make
your job more tolerable by allowing yourself to get that needed
vacation or leave.
5. Learn to use your relaxation response. Just as we all have within us
the stress response, we also have an opposite response, which is the
relaxation response. A person should elicit that on a regular basis. The
relaxation response involves two steps. Repetition, the repetition can
be a word, a sound, an expression, or a repetitive movement. The second
step is to ignore other thoughts that come to your mind while you’re
doing the repetition, and come back to the repetition. The technique
should be used once or twice a day for about 15 minutes. Sit quietly and
choose a suitable repetition, like a prayer, the sound Om, or the word
love, or calm. Or you can do a repetitive exercise, for instance yoga,
jogging, Reiki. Additional repetitive activities are knitting or
handicraft. When you incorporate this into your everyday life, you
become calmer and better able to handle the stressors. Practice makes
perfect and the more you practice relax your mind, the easier it gets.
The true causes of stress are not the problems or negative experiences
that you encounter in your life; but your attitude toward them. So, the
trick is to change your attitude and to develop a relaxed state, because
you cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time. It is important to
understand that what we focus on, we energize. The more you continue to
think about the factors that cause your stress, the more energy you
give it. So it is vital to let go and focus on relaxation instead.
Consequently, you’re less likely to be upset by a stressor, and thus
less likely to have its harmful effect occur. Eventually, it is your
choice. You could either continue to react in the same stressful way, or
you could choose to improve your life by changing your attitude and
becoming relaxed. There’s no other way around it.