Before you start reading:
Take a deep breath in and let it out slowly.
Do that one more time.
Now a third time, paying attention to the air that’s moving through your body.
Congratulations! You just helped to reduce the level of stress hormone (cortisol) in your system.
The more stressed we are, the more likely we are to be impatient, think negatively, and have less empathy for those around us. We become unhappy with people and things more easily. Our threshold for tolerance and coping goes down. And (you guessed it) this makes it more likely that we’ll complain.
Often we can’t control our circumstances, but we can adjust our responses to them. I’m sure you know that things like hiking, sleeping, and getting a massage are great for reducing stress. But when we’re really busy (as many/most of us are these days), it can seem impossible to take the time for proper breaks. So here are 10 stress-relieving “Micro-Exercises” (ME) that take one minute or less, and will add up to help calm your nervous system, reducing the levels of negative hormones while increasing the positive hormones in your body. ME Breaks will help you feel better and can even affect how you think, your level of creativity, and your ability to connect with others.
You just did the first one, so you’re off to a good start!
1: Take deep breaths. That old adage of taking deep breaths and counting to ten when you’re upset is a good one. It’s most effective if you can place your focus on the breath itself, feeling the physical sensation of air coming in through your nose and filling your lungs, then slowly breathing out through the mouth. Try to sense the flow of air across your tongue, teeth and lips.
2: Smile. Yup. That’s it. Just smile. It’s true that feeling good will make us smile, but the cool thing is the reverse is also true. In super-unscientific terms: Studies have shown that smiling triggers the “happy parts” of our brain. Turns out our brain interprets our expressions, so we can trick it by assuming the expression we want to feel. Smile first, feel better as a result. (On a related note: Pay attention to your facial muscles/expression when you’re doing things like working on a computer. If looking at a screen makes you squint, your brain thinks you’re frowning and that can contribute to your sense of frustration.)
3: Stand like Wonder Woman or throw up your hands in victory. Often times we feel the most stressed when things feel out of control. In another use-your-body-to-trick-your-brain maneuver, you can assume the position of someone who has control. Stand up with your feet about shoulder-width apart, put your hands on your hips, breathe to fill your chest with your back slightly arched. That’s the Wonder Woman pose. Or you could act like someone who’s just won a competition: Punch your fists in the air, or throw both hands up with your fingers stretched wide. You have the body of someone who’s confident and in control, and your brain will relay that feeling back to you. (Another related note: If you spend a lot of time looking down at your phone, your body is communicating a pose of defeat or exhaustion. Look up and pull your shoulders back as often as possible.)
4: Look at plants, especially flowers. Often in our modern world we spend days without seeing plants, except (perhaps) those on our plates. Numerous studies now have demonstrated what gardeners have known for ages: Looking at plants makes you feel better. Have indoor plants in your home or workplace, or a find a window that overlooks a park or even a single tree. Periodically focus on them (it doesn’t really do much if you’re just glancing at plants without attention). You’ll get an even bigger boost from looking at flowers, and there’s another bump for having flowers somewhere that you’ll see them in the morning. The best (of course) is if you can walk around somewhere surrounded by plants and flowers and just let your mind wander. If you don’t have the time, though, try to get some flowers or living plants indoors and spend 30-60 seconds looking at them when you need a moment of chill.
5: Savor food and drink. That cup of coffee on your desk or the sandwich you have in one hand while the other is on the keyboard can be more than simply fuel or an unconscious habit. Just before putting food or drink in your mouth, take a moment to look at it and remind yourself of what you’re doing, e.g., “I’m eating a sandwich” or “I’m drinking coffee.” Then consciously choose to open your mouth and try to fully feel and taste the food or drink as it enters your mouth. Look away from the screen or anything distracting while you’re doing this. As you swallow, feel its passage down your throat and consider that this is going to be converted into usable energy to keep you going. If you can, let yourself be amazed by that chemical conversion happening without you having to control it. Let yourself feel grateful for the food, the drink, and for the work your gut does to keep the rest of your body going.
6: Listen to nothing in particular. Modern life means a nearly constant bombardment of stimulation and information. Sometimes what we need to be truly creative and relaxed is to take a break from taking any more in, to give space to what’s in our own minds already. Many people automatically put on music whenever they’re not absorbed in a conversation or watching something, but even “calming” music is more information, contributing to the sense of overload. The brain needs space to breathe. Turn off the music/news/whatever in the car, take off the headphones on the train. Listen to what’s around you or just to your own breath. Let your mind wander. Sometimes we’re in distracting environments where it’s not calming to just listen, such as the office or a noisy cafe. If you have a smartphone, get a white noise app. Listen to that instead of music when you need to take an aural break.
7: Look at a calming image or recall a happy memory. Stress, anger, frustration, fear – when we’re feeling these, our brains are wired to focus on problems, narrowing our band of attention. Happiness, calm, excitement – in these states our attention is widened and our focus is open, able to take in more different kinds of information. If you’re feeling locked in a negative state, simply telling yourself to be happy or calm doesn’t work. However, reminding yourself of a time that you were happy or looking at something that you find calming fires up the neural pathways in your brain associated with that positive memory or image, widening your attention. This can then help you more easily make a conscious shift out of a negative narrow focus.
8: Drink a glass of water. Most of us are a little dehydrated and it’s easy to forget to take care of our bodies when we’re stressed. Get up, pour yourself a glass of water, and drink it very consciously – meaning put your focus on the water and the act of drinking it. Give your mind a rest and refresh your body at the same time.
9: Get and give a hug. One of the best ways to combat stress is to increase your body’s level of oxytocin, a hormone most easily released through non-sexual touch that communicates connection, like hugging or holding hands. So when you’re stressed, if it’s available and appropriate, ask someone for a hug. Neurochemically, it’s best if that hug can last 30 seconds, but even a short hug will help. Oxytocin can also be released when you hug or pet an animal like a dog or cat. Often, though, we’re stressed at work or other places where hugs and pets are not readily available. In those situations, you can still get some oxytocin going by hugging yourself. Cross your arms and give yourself a squeeze. Work your hands up and down your arms, continuing to squeeze. At the same time, think comforting thoughts and be aware that you’re doing something good to take care of yourself at that moment.
10: Step outside. Sometimes we need a dose of sunlight. Sometimes we need to breath deeply in fresh air. Sometimes we need to move our bodies around. Sometimes we don’t know what we need but a change of scenery sounds nice. For these reasons and more, spend a little time outside. Best if you can take a walk, move around. Keep your phone in your pocket and don’t put on your headphones. Just be outside. Swing your arms. Stretch a little. If you’re walking, exaggerate your steps by lifting your heels a little extra or raising your knees high. Basically: Remember you have a body and let it move a little.
11*: Do Micro-Exercise Bundles. Look at flowers while taking deep breaths. Think of a happy memory while you’re hugging yourself. Eat your lunch outside in the garden. Smile while you stand tall. You get the idea.
The effects of the individual Micro-Exercises are small, but they add up. Do them regularly, and you should find that your stress level overall will decrease and you’ll be able to stay calm more easily.
Now you’re done reading and that was a long one.
Isn’t it time for a ME Break right now?
*This post goes to 11!