1. Have Fun
This is the most basic and easiest way to reduce your stress level. It sounds simple, but many people don’t practice it enough. To me, this means spending time with my kids, cooking, climbing mountains, talking with my wife, or even biohacking. I’ll cover this more later in the series, but for new realize that it’s common for adults to forget to spend time having fun. Family and career considerations – and the ever-present email waiting for replies – can suck the fun out of life. It’s your job to schedule fun time the same way you schedule meetings.
2. Synchronize Your Heart & Brain with Heart Math
This is my “Honda daily driver” of brain upgrades. There are more expensive, sexier ways to hack your stress, but nothing comes close the the Heart Math technology when it comes to reliably training your heart and brain to work together. A healthy, relaxed person has high heart rate variability (HRV) which means that amount of time between each heart beat is different with each beat. Low heart rate variability is a sign of intense stress. When your sympathetic nervous system is under stress, your body will release stress hormones, and your heart develops an inflexible unchanging beat. This state is correlated with a host of diseases and even overall mortality from all causes.
The emWave2 is a device smaller than an iPhone which uses infrared sensors to calculate your HRV. When you have low HRV, a red light appears. Your job is to do everything possible to make the light turn green while following the device’s guidance, which steers you to breathe in and out every five seconds. You can also listen to music to help, meditate (See #3), or do anything else you can think of that doesn’t make you move around a lot. Spending at least ten minutes every day working with your heart rate variability is transformative. Doing it before bed can fix sleep problems, and it can help with emotional eating, daily stress, and even physical performance. This technology changed my life and career. It is simple to do and everyone I’ve ever known who did it for a month had huge positive changes in the way they felt and the way they treated others simply because they learned to consciously control their fight or flight responses. This stuff belongs in every school.
The goal of meditation is to become more mindful, be more directive and choiceful with your attention and responsive (not reactive) to your thoughts. Meditation allows you to identify, observe, and master your emotions. Instead of blindly reacting to outside stimuli, you can optimize your thought process and react as you see fit.
Several ways to practice mediation are counting, reciting mantras, breathing, practicing mindfulness and positive self talk.
You can reduce the amount of stress you experience through mindfulness of your thoughts and feelings. At the same time, you become better able to cope with the stress you still face. When you learn to meditate right (hint: Heart Math is a head start), the stressful voices in your head start to silence themselves.
In fact, mine are gone. There is silence when I want it, available on demand, at any time. No songs stuck in my head, no critical voices from my past, no worrying. Just me.
4. Pranayama Yoga
“When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.”
– Hatha Yoga Pradipika
You need to learn how to breathe. Most people suck in air using the intercostal muscles of their chest. The right way to breathe is with your diaphragm, also known as belly breathing. This kind of breathing helps you relax and control your heart rate.
The best way to describe this type of breathing is to describe Pranayama Yoga.
Pranayama is the art of Yoga breathing. One of the five aspects of yoga is breath control. According to pranayama yoga, there are three kinds of breathing:
This is also known as clavicular, or collarbone breathing. This means you are breathing primarily with the upper chest and lungs. High breathing is shallow and inefficient, since a large amount of oxygen fails to reach the lower lung. This is the worst form of breathing, and it is the one you revert to when stressed or angry.
This is the best possible form of breathing. It utilizes your lower abdomen and diaphragm to pull air in and out of your lungs. To practice low breathing, breathe into your stomach as you suck air through your nose, and your stomach will compress first on your exhale, following the breath up. Your chest and shoulder blades will not move much – only your stomach.
As you might expect, this is somewhere in between high and low breathing. It’s “better” than the former, but not as good as the latter.
There are four phases of proper breathing.
1. Inhale (Puraka in yoga-speak)
This should be a continuous, long breath.
2. Pause & hold (Abhyantara Kumbhaka)
This is a pause before exhaling. You should not move any muscle during this process.
3. Exhale (Rechaka)
This should be a controlled, relaxed, continuous exhale.
4. Pause After Exhaling (Bahya Kumbhaka)
This is just like the first pause and starts the cycle over again.
Controlled breathing is a great first step to mastering stress. Even a few minutes a day, done for 2 weeks, can have amazing effects. Add it to your morning routine and see what happens.
You can use this technique any time you experience discomfort or tension. Instead of kicking a trash can or thinking dark thoughts about that screaming baby in the airport when your flight gets delayed, take a few slow deep breaths and put your focus only on what it is like to breathe. You’ll feel better – I guarantee it.
You can learn more about Pranayama Yoga by clicking here.
My favorite two breathing techniques are:
The One Minute Breath
- Breathe in to the diaphragm for 20 seconds.
- Hold for 20 seconds
- Exhale for 20 seconds
- Breathe in to the diaphragm through the back of the throat for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
- Breathe out slowly through the back of the throat for 6 seconds
- Hold empty breath for 2 or more seconds
At first, it is common to feel like you’re going to die when you hold your lungs without air in them for even a second or two. Your brain rewires itself to be calmer when you practice slow breathing.
5. Art of Living
The Art of Living Foundation is a global resource for people trying to reduce stress. Their key principle is that “Unless we have a stress-free mind and a violence-free society, we cannot achieve world peace.” It was founded in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a spiritual leader who in 2010, was named the fifth most influential person in India by Forbes Magazine.
Their introductory course is focused on simple breathing exercises to give you “more energy to handle the stress of daily life.” There are workshops all around in the world where Art of Living practitioners work with you to perfect your breathing. If you are interested in trying the course, click here.
It’s a simple, repeatable method used by 25 million people worldwide to reduce stress, including severe stress like that found in war survivors. It works, and it is not a cult or a religion in any way, or I wouldn’t recommend it.