I am not a glass half full type of person. I am a glass brimming over and splashing down on the table, staining the tablecloth type of person. It goes with my plate already full personality. I like my life this way, even though it causes me stress. It causes the most stress in December when there is more to pile on to my already full plate. Here is what is still left on my to-do list: a Christmas letter, Christmas cards, Christmas cookies, Christmas presents, stocking stuffers, maybe I should make gluten-free Chex mix for my neighbors (and what about the people in the office building?), plus year-end accounting, my 2017 business plan, and, and, and.
My husband says that the list is completely under my control, therefore I create my own stress. He’s right, of course. Other people have other stressors that they have less control over. An article in Psychologist World reports that 70% of people have work related stress and half worry about their weight. Then there’s stress about money and stress because of gridlocked traffic. The point is that all of these things are magnified in December. The to-do list is longer, the expenses are higher, it’s scarieer to drive in the dark and the rain, and after we’re stressed out about finding time to make the cookies, we are stressed out about how much weight we’ll gain after eating them.
A voice inside our head says, “You should relax,” but it's not as easy flipping a switch in the brain. Stress is as much in the body—maybe more so—than in the mind. The most successful stress management strategies involve changing tension in the body. This article gives you three concrete ways to manage your stress. All three have helped me through the holidays.
Fingertip breathing meditation
The beauty of this technique is that you can do it anywhere, while waiting at the checkout line or while sitting at a stop light.
As you inhale, open your hands and spread your fingers. On a slow exhale, bring your thumbs and little fingers together. Slowly open your hands again in time with your inhale, and on the next exhale, bring your thumbs and ring fingers together. Inhale and open, on your next slow exhale thumbs and middle fingers together. Open on the inhale again and on your fourth exhale bring the thumbs and pointer fingers together. Repeat the sequence until you feel less tension. For example, my to-do list overwhelms me at times and I don’t know where to start. At some point during the fingertip meditation, I will gain clarity and the next step will become obvious. It might take me four or five rounds, but the “time out” from my scurrying gives me the ability to focus and find the next best step.
I think it’s helpful to vary the amount of pressure on the fingers. What’s the difference if you press them firmly together or try a feather light touch? How about pressing the finger pads together or the finger tips? Trying to touch left and right thumbs and fingers at the exact same moment seems particularly helpful to me.
Why does this work?
Focusing on and slowing the breath is calming and can shift your nervous system from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” mode. Adding movements from the hands helps unlock stress patterns all the way from your fingers to your neck, patterns like clenching your fists, gripping the steering wheel, or hunching your shoulders.
Being aware of your body is also calming. In the days when we were outside and subject to danger more often, knowing where the body was in space (technically called proprioception) was vital to surviving stressful situations. Even though we aren’t in danger from wild animals or falling tree branches, our nervous system is still soothed by developing proprioception.
Also, you might recognize each of these hand positions as a gesture used in yoga or other meditation practices, called mudras, which are purported to channel energy in certain ways. When I taught this meditation practice in yoga class, my students found that one finger position was more comforting than the others. I invite you to explore if there’s a mudra that is most effective for your stress, and if different mudras are more effective in different situations. (The sitting in traffic stress relieving mudra might not be the same as the arguing with your spouse stress relieving mudra.)
Stress shaker undulation
This one is easy and depending on how self-conscious you are, you might not want to do it in the checkout line, or maybe just do so on the sly. Simply shake your wrists so that your fingers wobble around. Try to make your hands rubbery.
To extend the undulation, change the movement from your shoulders so that your elbows also have that rubbery feeling. Wobble your shoulders up and down and front and back and let your arms and body follow easily along.
You can also “shake a leg” if you are holding on to a chair or wall for balance and try to get that rubbery feeling in the ankle and foot. You can also wobble your head, but do so gently.
Why does this work?
We spend so much time being still and this shaking movement is very unusual. Your body has to orient itself differently to do the movement and has to figure out how to let go of tension to be able to feel rubbery.
Isn’t this the type of thing we did regularly when we were limber kids? We like to think that we did unusual things when we were more limber, but actually, we were more limber, because we did unusual things.
Animals naturally shake to relieve stress. You often see it when watching nature programs: zebras and pronghorns shake after being chased by a lion. Dogs do the same thing for smaller stressors as shown in this video.
This one is simple. If you are stressed in your work cubicle or building tension when you can't find an appropriate, affordable gift, get up, put on your coat (and hat if needed) and go outside. In the outside air. Feel the temperature difference. Feel the breeze, maybe even rain or snow, on your face. Walk around a bit, or a lot. Find a plant to look at, hopefully some birds as well. Let your eyes focus on things far away instead of that computer screen 18 inches in front of your face. Let your peripheral vision open up.
Going down the hall to the bathroom or getting exercise by climbing steps won’t substitute for this one. This isn’t taking a break from sitting by standing and walking. This is taking a break from being inside where most stress now happens and going outside to the natural environment. Outside can be a city street or just walking around your house or apartment. But it needs to be where you are under the sky and have space around you.
Why does this work?
Taking a break from a stressful situation gives you the opportunity to create a new perspective according to the American Psychological Association. Since most stress today involves inside activities, getting outside expands the perspective even farther. It also gives our eyes a break from short-distance focus, and for those of us, like me, who believe in a mind-body connection, the expansion from physical focus translates to mental focus as well.
Things we find outside—fresh air, plants and animals, the sky—are resources to the nervous system. Even the sensations of cold, wet rain will initiate a change that allows you to let go of stress. Bonus: there aren't any cookies to tempt us outside.
Whether you use these tips a little or lot during this holiday season, I hope they help you relieve tension in your body and give you more peace of mind. After all, that’s what this season is supposed to be about.
Post script for my grammarian readers. For consistency, I had to choose between overwhelming this article with hyphens or eliminating them. Yes, it is missing hyphens, a lot of them.