Years ago, as I was making my way through college, I quickly began to realize that I had quite a different view of things than most people. I began to find myself in situations that I didn’t understand. Remember when you were a child and you would be “in trouble” for something, but you didn’t understand at all how it had come to this? I often found myself there in young adulthood. Some time, when I was struggling my way through graduate school, I came across an article in Scientific American that explained how stress from abuse during childhood actually changes the very wiring of your brain. Physically changes your brain.
Well, that was like the proverbial light bulb going off over my head, and thus began my own personal journey towards enlightenment and creating a low-stress environment for myself. Ha! Good luck with that! Turns out- putting yourself through school, losing loved ones, “attacks on America”, war, almost dying during childbirth and GMOs are all out to crash the party. And many things in between.
But, I digress.
I turned my attention towards that whole genre of good vibration- the one that includes yoga, meditation and all things holistic. While I would love to fully immerse myself in to an Ashram or living off-the-grid, it isn’t my reality. It isn’t a reality for most, so there really are some tried and true ways at lowering stress and creating inner calm. It is vital to keep stress at bay, as stress causes us to release cortisol.
Cortisol- while it does play a vital role in our bodies- is detrimental when consistently elevated. Elevated cortisol levels can weaken the immune system, cause fertility problems, create blood sugar imbalance, lead to weight gain and can cause gastrointestinal problems. Long term stress and elevated cortisol can also lead to insomnia, chronic fatigue and depression.
Oddly enough, as I am typing this, my husband’s bike tire just burst near my head and sounded like a gunshot. My entire body is shaking, which has to do with a giant surge in adrenaline and cortisol. Had it been an actual gunshot- the elevation in my stress hormones would be quite beneficial in helping me to get out of dodge, and quickly. Unfortunately, as is the case for most of us, we all tend to experience these surges in stress hormone release weekly, if not daily. For some people it’s traffic that sets them off, for others it’s dealing with children, and for some of us it is exploding bike tires. While Americans are very fortunate to not be living in a war zone, we still continue to be some of the most stressed out folks in the world (excluding Japan).
Whatever the case, stress needs to be managed, and inner calm needs to be something we actively cultivate. Meditation has been proven to be an effective tool in stress management. Meditating has been proven to boost serotonin, which is the antidote to cortisol. Meditation can ease anxiety, lower blood pressure, increase concentration and reduce anxiety. I love that saying: “You should meditate for 20 minutes everyday, unless you are too busy…then you should meditate for an hour.” If you’re anything like me, you struggle to find time to do anything at all, and in this case it is a great idea to try to bring meditation in to your everyday practices. With focus and intention, washing dishes can become a meditation. Lucky for us!
Prayer and gratitude are known to ride in the same boat of benefits as meditation. All increase serotonin by allowing us to become present, positive and to operate with intention. Physical work can create the same state of inner peace, which is referred to by some as “flow”. You know that feeling of just losing yourself in what you are doing- there is no time and nothing else exists? That is flow, and it is quite good for your sense of well-being. It’s no wonder, for me, that I am a craft artist- hammering metal and knitting can be quite meditative and therapeutic.
Then, of course, we have breathing exercise and yoga. Yoga is not only great for strength and flexibility, but it is also known to increase serotonin levels. Breathing exercises are often a part of yoga practices, or you can do breathing exercises alone, any time! I find I do them in the car quite often! A great breathing exercise, proven to lower tension, is as so: breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, exhale through your nose for a count of 8- do this sequence four times.
Oh, man. Are you calm yet? If not, there’s something else I’d love you to consider- sound. There is a lot of information out there on cymatics and things like the healing benefits of Solfeggio tones. It is undoubted that sound, and the vibration from sound, can have a healing and stress-relieving effect. I know when I catch a wind chime in a warm Summer breeze that I am absolutely transported to an altered state…a nice, calm one!
I recall sitting on a New England beach when I was 9 months pregnant. I sat in front of the surf one day for two hours, eyes closed, and just absorbed the intensity of the sound of waves moving in and crashing on the shore. I imagined how soothing that was for little Bodhi, as it had a profound influence on me. I can still close my eyes and conjure that experience and use it to create inner calm. If you watch the YouTube videos on cymatics- where the sand on a metal plate organizes itself in to geometry with different sound frequencies- there is no doubt that sound can create order in all things.
Anecdotes aside- the “thing” I have found to be most beneficial is being able to be open to the moments in life- the small moments that come to you in your everyday. These practices mentioned above are important in creating an environment of peace for yourself, but the crucial part has to do with allowing yourself to be open to things as they come to you. We need to allow ourselves the space to be really affected by how that sunlight is spraying through the branches, or how the wind sounds so delightful rustling the leaves. How often do you go out of your way to stop, look up and enjoy the stars and moon? Or watch a dog sleeping? Or listen to a child laughing? This is life- it’s made up of all these beautiful little moments.
No amount of yoga, prayer or meditation can heal if we are not open and ready to receive. For myself, nothing has opened me so much as motherhood. The love I have for my child has created a space in me that allows me to be more open and loving in the world. I accept it.
My wish for all of us is not the absence of stress, for that is simply part of life, but the intention and willingness to breathe in to it…to be able to find calm and rest in any way that suits us!