Thirteen Ways to Transform Your Stress

Cultivate Your Life, by Joshua Burkhart

Cultivate Your Life, by Joshua Burkhart

We are all familiar with stress. It’s just part of life these days, but as familiar as it is, it can be managed. There are many scientifically based remedies to stress, which is why I’ve made this list. Sprinkled throughout are some other remedies from older traditions that I know have worked for myself and clients.

I've also attached a link to a free Stress-Free Hypnosis recording near the bottom. Just look for the section labeled "Connect."

1. Observe and be kind to yourself

The first start to any consciousness or transformative practice is simply to try to observe. Figure out what your triggers are, and how you react. Where does your Hippocampus take you when you’re on autopilot? Is it to a cookie or a beer?

For me, once I got over the chemical dependencies of cigarettes, booze or marijuana I started seeing just how much my mind obsessed with social relations when it was feeling stressed. You might find you go to the staples of self-medicating, or you might discover you have some unique ways of trying to cope that you would like to change.

All of this starts with observation.

Stop torturing yourself over what you do when stressed, it’s not a reflection of you, it's just a conditioned part of your brain.

Figure out what triggers these stress states for you and where you go when triggered, and then use the following steps to shift this.

If you beat yourself up for getting stressed all you’re doing is creating more stress. (Of course we are often used to this, and it's where the mind takes us anyway.

Breathe through these times, and realize that the more you get yourself into a non-stressed state, where you are using more of your brain, the more that inner whirlpool of trigger, action, accusation, guilt and shame starts to drain away.)

2. Breathe deeply.

Our emotions are linked to our breathing because our body’s attempt to manage and display them is linked to our breathing. Deeper, fuller breaths are signs that we are in a relaxed state. The short choppy breaths of a triggered state are meant to increase oxygen and get your body ready for fight or flight.

When we reverse this and calm our breath by breathing deeply, we are sending a very real message to the body that the threat has been assessed and it’s ok to calm down now.

As with all things, this comes with practice and is normally easier if you establish a meditation and mindfulness routine.

3. Use imagery to break through the stress state.

Sometimes it’s fire. I feel out the stress in my body and I burn it up. Sometimes it’s a river washing it all away. I know people who use rays of light. Sometimes I make it more complicated, turn the worries to ash and grow some trees from them.

Use whatever comes naturally for you. Personally, for me, this changes every so often to a new image. Switch it up if you have to, but a visualization can often help, especially when coupled with deep breathing.

Visualization allows you to interact with the emotional state in a new way. It gets you out of the worry cycle, breaking up the thought patterns that lead you into the downward spiral.

4. Get into your body, sight, sound, smell and touch.

When the visualizations and breathing aren’t enough to keep you in your right mind, get out of your head and into your body.

  • Google a picture of something you find beautiful or better yet go stare at a tree, a spider web or the sky. Just focus your sight on something you find relaxing, and focus your mind on your breath and that sight.

    You may feel the stress creep in and realize you are no longer actually seeing what you’re staring at. (Happens to me all the time when I’m walking, side thoughts enter and suddenly I realize I’m not enjoying all the beautiful sights around me.) If you recognize this, just nod your head and try to look again.

    Congratulations, you are now meditating.

  • If you don’t want to leave the office, or wherever you are, another great anchoring piece is touch.

    Rub your index finger and thumb together, bringing your attention to the sensation, or rub your thumb around your palm in circles or figure eights. Often times stress can make us forget our bodies. Connecting with them and feeling something solid can take us out of the abstract mental loops and help us realize that we’re actually quite safe in this moment.

  • Hum or sing a favorite line. King of Siam it and whistle a happy tune, or list your favorite things. Music activates entire regions of the brain (1). So when you start to engage it you really open your brain up. On top of it, the act of humming or singing brings sensation into the body.

    You feel your throat, the vibrations in your mouth and chest, and if you sing you are controlling your breath. It’s all around good.

    I have a few go-to melodies that incorporate my spiritual and mindfulness practices. It’s an instant message to my body and mind to pay attention and open up.

  • Light some incense, smell a rose or douse yourself in essential oils.

    The sense of smell is the only one to bypass the Thalamus, the switchboard of sorts for the sensory systems. The olfactory system runs its own game and it plugs into where it needs to be.

    What this means for you is that you have a backup route to wake your brain up out of its stressed states, one that doesn’t go the same way as all those above.

5. Splash cold water on your face, or better yet dunk it. (Advanced strategy.)

This isn’t meant for torture. Instead, it activates the Mammalian Diving Reflex, essentially making your body feel like you might freeze or drown and your body reacts appropriately.

Why is tricking your body into thinking it’s going to die a good tool for countering a stressful situation?

Because death puts things into perspective and the cold water on your face is a way of telling you to get your priorities straight. It breaks down that inner monologue of stressed thoughts.

You know that downward cycle that takes you from “well this is inconvenient” to imagining your house on fire, your car soaring over a cliff and your significant other not only cheating on you but interested in an entirely different gender?

This is the way to break out of that cycle. It shocks your body back into the moment.

So the next time the boss tells you that report better get turned in by Friday, splash some water on your face, trick your body into pretending it’s dying and laugh as the report doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

6. FIND A WAY TO FEEL IN CONTROL.

This is perhaps my favorite hack because it goes hand in hand with a good spiritual practice and even magical thinking. (How often do you get to scientifically justify magical thinking?)

Apparently, if you think you have control over a situation your mind avoids the stress state for longer (2). Your PFC stays engaged so you’ll be able to better sort out what is going on and how to fix it, you stay out of the autopilot mode of the Hippocampus and you don’t wreck your body with stress chemicals.

How does this relate to magical thinking and spirituality?

The positive effect of avoiding the stress state remains even if the individual’s belief about their control of the situation is illusionary. Now that isn’t to say that spirituality or magical thinking is illusionary, what I’m saying is real or not, it works.

So why not put it to work for you? Develop a spiritual practice, feel connected to the universe, find your silver lining and write your grimoire, whatever (with ethical caveats) works to help empower you and make you feel in control.

For me, it’s prayer and ritual.

Just make sure not to reach for too much control. The belief that you can control others or completely master the environment is a great way to stress yourself out.

7. Get out into Nature and observe States of Wonder.

Nature heals you. Simple as that. More scientifically put, it may help us de-stress by reducing stimuli and putting the brain in a familiar environment. Familiar in the fact that nature is where the brain evolved.

This works for sound and vision (3) and a whole host of other considerations like the cleaner air one breaths in a forest. For a great read on this, check out this National Geographic article on nature and health.

The sense of Awe also reduces stress by directly calming the nervous system. It causes us to think more critically and in a new relation to time, one that doesn’t feel like the pressures of the day are crushing us. In short, it puts things in perspective.

For more reading on this, check out this short article from a Berkeley Researcher, or this paper from Stanford.

8. Go for a walk.

So I said in my last post that I’d leave out exercise, but walking is just too good. Study after study shows that exercise promotes well-being and reduces stress. Walking has also been shown to increase neurogenesis, which in theory increases the speed in which neuroplasticity allows us to reshape our brains. Tired of where the Hippocampus leads you? Want to beef up that PFC?

Get your neurogenesis on.

On top of the neurological effects, many of our states of mind, behaviors, and emotions are linked to our environments. If you don’t like where your mind is at, get a change of scenery and switch it up.

For double, the points go take a walk in the park and enjoy some nature. Let the cadence of your walk leave your worries behind you.

9. Meditate

Study after study shows how well meditation can help relieve stress. And the thing is it’s really not that hard.

Most people I tell that to who don’t already have a meditation practice roll their eyes at this point and either look at me like I’m crazy or say that they’ve tried and it doesn’t work for them.

To respond to the former, check out this study, Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being. It’s a meta-study that reviewed 18,735 clinical trials.

It’s true a lot of those studies didn’t practice good science, but the meta-review found 47 studies that did, and they all agree: meditation works at relieving stress and has other physical and mental health benefits.

As for whether meditation will work for you, it works for everyone.

It’s just a matter of what you’re doing. In the west, it’s easiest to sell something if it’s novel. So it’s popular to come up with new things or find old things people have forgotten. Since humanity has been meditating for as long as we can remember there are plenty of methods to throw around.

So now people get bombarded with all these “ways to meditate.” On top of it all its pretty hard to pull out of the western mentality of immediate gratification. If meditating doesn’t “work” the first few times someone tries it, they often quit.

I like to remind my clients that meditation is a practice, a lifelong practice. In a culture where you can take a weekend course on anything from becoming a billionaire to “mastering” tai chi or becoming a shaman, life-long practices are often hard to understand.

Monks from meditative traditions have spent decades of their lives in ideal meditating conditions to become good at it and they will spend their entire lives practicing it to perfection.

The good thing is it only takes 10 minutes a day for us to see benefits from this practice, but these benefits are subtle and build up with time, just as our brains slowly change with the practice itself.

Now what to do for those 10 minutes when there are a thousand systems out there? Personally, I believe the value in meditation is in focusing and decluttering the mind. So let’s strip things down to their basics.

You may have been told meditation is all about emptying the mind. That’s a great saying, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere.

The brain is an organ of worry, it’s there to keep us alive and make sure we’re able to survive. It is supposed to be aware of dangers and figure out how to complete our tasks and plans. That constantly racing “monkey mind” is just doing its job.

When you sit down to meditate and your brain darts off on a rabbit trail, it isn’t because you lack self-control, or your brain is too chaotic, or any fault with you and your mind. It is simply because your brain hasn’t practiced this new form of being and is doing what it is used to, what it feels meant to do.

I often tell my clients to simply observe the mind running off and, if they can, laugh. Treat the runaway thoughts like a cute puppy or baby who bolted on some quest for fun and freedom.

Like the puppy or baby, the mind doesn’t know any better. It’s just doing what it does, what the brain has always done. With time, a relaxed attitude and consistent corrections, it’ll learn not to dart off so much.

No one gets mad at the baby while she’s learning, so don’t get mad at your mind.

Pick something to focus on, your breath or counting to 10. Some people really like staring at something; a lit candle can often help. Focus on it, and just breathe. If you’re alive your mind will dart somewhere. That’s fine, just recognize what it is doing when you can and bring it back to your focus.

If you get frustrated with how often your mind is running around, a good thing to remember is that every time you find your mind darting and you successfully bring it back you are taking one more step in the direction you want to go. The running away wasn’t a failure, bringing it back is the actual practice, it is a success.

With time your mind will dart off less and less often, so don’t be hard on yourself. I know spiritual practitioners who have been practicing twice as long as I’ve been alive. Their focus is amazing, but they’ll still tell you that their minds will flicker here or there occasionally.

Meditating isn’t about making your mind go blank or empty, it’s about bringing back your thoughts to a focused state so that your mind is able to take a break.

10. Don’t just meditate, practice mindfulness.

Meditation is great, but if you don’t bring it with you in your day-to-day life, it’s just a time once a day when you get to relax. Bring mindfulness into your everyday life, and you can achieve a state of self-realization.

I don’t mean this as a vague, fluffy cliche. I mean this in a very physical way.

When we stress out, parts of our brain like the PFC get overwhelmed and essentially shut down (2). If you want to realize the whole you, what you are like when all parts of your brain are functional, you will want to keep your stress managed. Stress literally boxes you up and cuts you off from yourself.

So remember yourself and bring mindfulness into your everyday. A great way of doing this is using an anchoring behavior. For instance, while you meditate, take deep breathes and add a tactile anchor such as rubbing your thumb and forefinger together or your thumb in a figure-eight around your palm like the tactile advice above.

Next time you feel triggered or are getting stressed out, not only will this tactile sensation bring you back into your body, but its association with meditation and deep breathing will bring you back into your practice.

Essential oils are also great for this. I often put frankincense on my wrists during my morning rituals. If I need to, I rub my wrists just a little and get the scent I use during my meditations and spiritual practices. It always helps bring me back into these states no matter where I am.

11. Take cold showers.

Yes, I know they’re miserable. Until you do them and then you’re singing hallelujah and speaking in tongues, or if you’re like me you’re laughing madly to yourself because you have to let out all that crazy energy somehow.

I won’t try to sell you too much on cold showers, there are hundreds of bloggers doing that, some with their entire site devoted to this.

Just know that it works at increasing stress endurance, (4) which helps train you to keep your mind going in stressful situations.

When my spiritual teacher was growing up in Siberia, one of her shamanic mentors would tell her to stand naked in the ice-filled rivers of her hometown. I don’t know anyone with better focus or self-control than her. Stories like this are not uncommon to powerful spiritual traditions.

If you want to remember yourself during all events and trials, you need to build stress resistance and this is one of those ways. Plus you’ll feel like a champ afterward and be invigorated for the day.

12. Take breaks!

My spiritual mentor is a University Professor and every 45 minutes on the dot, she gives her students a break. She refuses to go beyond this.

For her, it is good Chinese medicine. Every activity, when concentrated, uses up Yang. You need to let the activity go into its rest phase (Yin) or else you will exhaust the student and their energy.

For behaviorists, the measured increase in productivity is enough to recommend the practice, and you will find bloggers all over the web bursting with enthusiasm for the Pomodoro Technique.

Neurologically it just makes sense. It takes a lot to keep us focused. Concentration is held through the constant release of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and/or acetylcholine. Norepinephrine and dopamine are directly related to the stress effect

The body has to use a lot of energy, chemicals, and blood flow to keep you thinking and focused.

Taking a break lets you give your brain a rest and has been shown to reduce the chemical signs of stress. So set yourself a timer for 45 minutes and make sure to get up and walk around, meditate or fix yourself some tea when that timer goes off.

13. Go on vacations and make sure to enjoy yourself daily.

This one is kind of obvious: Enjoying yourself reduces stress. However, if you read this Harvard article you’ll see that people just aren’t doing that.

In fact, Glassdoor shows that 61% of people actually work while on vacation. And if you’re anything like the people who come to me as clients - successful, determined and hardworking - your schedule is probably full Monday through Sunday.

Heck, even my schedule is full all week. I just make sure to schedule naps, meditation, social events and such amongst everything else I need to do.

Why?

Because an enriched environments reduce stress and get your Hippocampus online and working well (5), which means our memories are online and working and we’re doing better at managing our stress state.

If you read my article on How Stress is Sabotaging You and Your Life you’ll see how the Hippocampus keeps us going when the Prefrontal Cortex shuts down.

It helps us navigate where we are and remember what we tend to do.

Just as stress overwhelms the PFC it also overwhelms your Hippocampus. So you want to take care of it. And now the scientists are saying a great way to do that is to have fun.

SO GO HAVE FUN!

Schedule it if you have to. Just make sure there are times in your week, preferably every day, when you can enjoy yourself. (And that doesn’t mean sit back with a bottle of wine and the television.)

The study is of an enriched environment. We’re talking good food, good company and active participation in a great atmosphere. Take a scented bath, throw a frisbee around the park, line up a date or hit up Disneyland, just make sure you take the time to enjoy yourself.

Conclusion:

There are plenty of ways to reduce stress. We can each choose our owns tyle and flavor an make these techniques a part of our lives.

If you still need convincing on why we need to reduce our stress check out my article on How Stress is Sabotaging Your Goals

Call to Action:

Choose just one of the techniques above and apply it to your daily life. Try to choose something simple. Don't worry about how often you do it, just do it!

Make it a daily goal to destress in this fashion at least once a day and watch as this habit slowly grows and the stress in your life shrinks.

Connect:

If you’d like to work with me on reducing your own stress feel free to set up a free consultation with me.

Or join our mailing list and receive a free Stress-Free Hypnosis Recording.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on stress. What methods do you employ to reduce your stress?

What have you experienced in life when you were able to get stress under control?

Please leave your comment below and always feel free to email me.

References:

  1. Vinoo Alluri, Petri Toiviainen, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Enrico Glerean, Mikko Sams, Elvira Brattico. “Large-scale brain networks emerge from dynamic processing of musical timbre, key and rhythm.” NeuroImage, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.11.019

  2. Arnsten, Amy F. T. “Stress Signalling Pathways That Impair Prefrontal Cortex Structure and Function.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience 10.6 (2009): 410–422. PMC. Web. 12 Jan. 2017.

  3. Glass DC, Reim B, Singer JE. Behavioral consequences of adaptation to controllable and uncontrollable noise. J. exp. Social Psychol. 1971;7:244–257.
    See also, Alvarsson, Jesper J, Stefan Wiens, and Mats E Nilsson. “Stress Recovery during Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7.3 (2010): 1036–1046. PMC. Web. 13 Jan. 2017.

  4.  Siems WG1, Brenke R, Sommerburg O, Grune T. Improved antioxidative protection in winter swimmers. QJM. 1999 Apr;92(4):193-8.

  5. Bhagya, V., Srikumar, B. N., Veena, J. and Shankaranarayana Rao, B. S. (2016), Short-term exposure to enriched environment rescues chronic stress-induced impaired hippocampal synaptic plasticity, anxiety, and memory deficits. Journal of Neuroscience Research. doi:10.1002/jnr.23992