There are a variety of both mental and physical ways to manage stress and associated anxiety. As noted in a previous post, changing the way you think about stressors to reduce catastrophizing is one way. Another mental approach involves using your mind to relax. Techniques such as mental imagery and meditation can be used to decrease your stress response. In mental imagery, relaxation is achieved by a few minutes of deep focus on a peaceful scene, often somewhere in nature. In meditation, relaxation is achieved by a few minutes of mental repetition of a word or phrase, usually in conjunction with relaxed breathing.
Relax with mental imagery
Imagery typically works best with eyes closed and muscles relaxed. The relaxing place you visualize can be one that you’ve actually visited, one you’ve seen in a picture or a movie, or one you create by using your imagination. Make this experience as real as possible by imagining as many details as you can. For example:
- The soft warmth of a sandy beach while sunlight glistens on blue-green waves and palm trees sway and rustle in the tropical breeze.
- The scent of ferns and wet earth as you recline on a mossy boulder and dip your feet into the coolness of a gurgling brook that flows through a lush green meadow.
- The lapping of tiny waves against your canoe as you drift across a pond under the glow of a full moon while owls hoot and crickets chirp in the distance.
Relax and enjoy your imagery for a while. When you’re ready, gradually bring your attention back to the room you’re in. Slowly open your eyes and gently move your body, noticing the things around you as you end your relaxing mental imagery experience.
Relax with meditation
Meditation is another powerful mental stress-reduction technique. While people have meditated for centuries, interest in this practice is growing as scientific study convincingly demonstrates its ability to improve physical and mental health and well-being.
One form of meditation involves silent repetition of a word, often called a “mantra.” Sometimes Sanskrit words, such as “om,” are used, but English words, such as “relax” or “calm,” work just as well.
To try meditation, sit down, close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, relax your muscles, and silently repeat “relax” or another mantra each time you exhale.
Meditation isn’t limited to focusing on a single word. You can, for example, meditate by focusing on short phrases, such as a prayer. Or you can meditate while focusing on mental images, for example, picturing the air flowing in and out of your lungs.
Meditation also doesn’t need to be done with eyes closed while sitting still and alone. You can learn to meditate while walking, swimming, or otherwise moving about. You can also meditate with others. Many yoga classes incorporate meditation practice along with physical exercise.
It’s normal for your mind to wander to other topics as you meditate, even more so when you are under stress. When you notice this happening, gently bring your attention back to your breathing and mantra or other focus. With practice, your mind will gradually grow more skilled at remaining focused during meditation.
“Mindfulness” is a term for a type of meditation similar to that described above. However, mindfulness also incorporates an approach to life in general that involves greater awareness and appreciation of the present moment, rather than unproductive focus on the past or future. Mindfulness training also encourages adoption of an attitude of non-judgmental observation as an alternative to emotional over-reactivity.
Mindfulness training programs, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, have been shown in many research studies to have beneficial effects on health and well-being. For example, researchers have demonstrated measurable growth in important regions of the brain after just a few weeks of mindfulness meditation practice.
Live mindfulness meditation training programs are available in many communities. Such live instruction and the group support that goes along with it are generally best at motivating participants to practice meditation enough to make it a long-term habit.
Previously, we covered how to reduce stress and anxiety by not exaggerating the likelihood or badness of an undesired outcome and by looking at your goals in new ways. In this post, we covered how to use your mind to quiet the stress response through mental imagery and meditation. Next, we will turn to ways of using your body to relax.
Featured image credit: Canoeing Girl by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.