This is the time of year when life is especially busy, demanding, and even stressful.
In addition to our work and day-to-day responsibilities, we're preparing for the holidays — spending more money, running extra errands, and perhaps coping with negative thoughts and feelings the season often stirs up.
We might feel sad about a loved one who's no longer with us, or a difficult family member who is coming to visit, or a child who can't make it home for the holidays.
Even the beautiful and positive aspects of the season add more stress to our lives. We want things to be special and memorable. We want to get the perfect gift. We want a bit of time to relax and enjoy family time in the midst of all of the shopping, cooking, and wrapping.
Our brains go into overdrive with all of the planning, worrying, excitement, and sorting through emotions — sapping our energy and peace of mind. If you're like me, you're probably getting less sleep, eating too many rich and fattening foods, and exercising less. This extracts more energy and depletes our mental and emotional reserves.
The best gift you can give yourself this season is taking the time each day to clear your mind. You don't have to spend much time doing this. Even ten minutes a day is enough to reboot your energy and recharge your brain. When you stop ruminating, worrying, and planning, and simply empty your mind, it's like stepping into a peaceful space where the stresses of life can't reach you.
Here's how to clear your mind to reduce stress:
In the morning when you awaken or before you begin your daily activities, take five minutes to do some intentional breathing. When we first wake up, we're often flooded with thoughts about our tasks and obligations for the day. Instead of giving in to all of those thoughts immediately, mentally set them aside and give yourself five minutes of freedom from thought.
Find a quiet place where you won't be interrupted, and practice diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. Rather than breathing from your chest, when you breath in, concentrate on pushing your abdomen out. The abdominal muscles help move your diaphragm, giving you more power to empty your lungs. Abdominal breathing decreases the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate.
Take a few deep, cleansing breaths, then slowly breath in and out through your nose, taking natural, easy breaths. You don't need force it — just relax into the breaths.
As you breathe, focus your thoughts on counting to ten, mentally saying the number to yourself on the out breath. When you reach ten, start over again. If your thoughts wander or you feel anxious, gently guide your thoughts back to your breathing and counting. Within a few minutes, you'll notice your mind and body calming down.
This breathing recharge can be done at any time of day when you're feeling overwhelmed, tired, or just in need of a mental break.
A great way to give you an immediate energy burst while clearing your mind is through a resistance training. It's very difficult to have racing thoughts or worry when your mind and body are occupied with intense muscle work that requires concentration, focused breathing, and counting reps. Your brain becomes empty of all thought except forcing your muscles to do their work.
Resistance training has so many health benefits aside from clearing your mind and improved muscle strength and tone. It helps you maintain flexibility and balance, manage your weight, have greater stamina, increase bone density, prevent and control many chronic healthy conditions, and decrease your risk of injury.
You can perform strength training with free weights or medicine balls, weight machines, resistance bands, or with your own body weight (with push-ups, sit-ups, dips, squats, lunges, and chin-ups). When you perform strength training, you begin with eight to ten exercises that work the major muscle groups of the body, performing them two to three times every week and focusing on different muscle groups during each session.
If you're a beginner, start with one set of each exercise, with eight repetitions, no more than twice a week. Then gradually increase to two to three sets for each exercise with eight to twelve reps, every second or third day. Once you can easily do twelve reps of an exercise, you can increase the weight or resistance. Sessions should last about 20-30 minutes each.
Resistance training is a great activity at the end of the day when you feel low on energy. It doesn't require as much intensity as cardio exercise, but it stills gets your blood pumping and focuses your mind, allowing you to de-stress from the day's activities.
I find when I'm working for long periods at my desk, I get tense and agitated and need a change of scenery. That's when I'll go outside and take a walk by the river near my house. Walking in a natural setting is automatically soothing and relaxing (rather than walking on the street or in a busy environment). But sometimes a solitary walk gives you too much space and freedom to focus on your worries and frustrations.
Instead of just taking a walk, try a walking meditation instead. This requires being mindful of yourself, your body, and your surroundings as you take your walk. Begin by simply standing and becoming aware of the weight of your body moving through the soles of your feet and into the ground. Become aware of all parts of your body, how they feel, and the subtle shifts required to keep you balanced.
As you start walking, notice the feeling of your feet lifting from the ground and striking it again with each step. Become aware of the movement of your joints and the swing of your legs as you walk. Notice the temperature outside and how it feels on your skin.
Then pay attention to the smells outside, the sounds of nature, and the various things you observe as you walk. As you notice these sites, name them in your head descriptively — bright red bird, tall oak tree, babbling stream. This may seem silly, but it keeps you grounded in the moment and your mind engaged in exactly what you're experiencing.
If you notice your mind wandering or you have feelings of stress or agitation, name those feelings as well — but without judgement or anxiety. Then simply shift your thoughts back to your observations through your senses.
If your mind is really preoccupied with a problem or worry, and it's extremely difficult to disengage from it, then empty your mind by putting all of your thoughts on paper. Perform a brain dump in your journal by writing in longhand everything that's on your mind.
Write down what you're thinking, how you're feeling, and what you are worried might happen. Once you get all of the negativity out of your head and onto the page, then create some positive affirmations that are the opposite of the feelings and thoughts you just released.
For example, if you're worried you won't get everything done in time, and you're feeling overwhelmed and stressed, them write, “I have plenty of time to do everything that needs to get done, and I complete my tasks peacefully and calmly.” If there are real solutions you can enact to reduce your stress or negative feelings — like delegating or cutting back on going to events — then write down your thoughts on these as well.
There's something about getting thoughts onto paper that helps us process and organize them. They are no longer swirling around in our minds, but rather captured in black and white, relieving us of the stress of worrying about them. Putting them on paper also releases energy to put toward creative solutions and a change in mood.
During this busy season when we're so focused on all of the new gifts we're about to give and receive, it's calming to step back and look at all of the existing gifts in our lives. We have so much to be grateful for. How will one more gadget, shirt, or piece of jewelry really make our lives substantially better?
Gift-giving and receiving is fun, but a little can go a long way. The goal isn't just to get stuff or give stuff because the season demands it. It's to give out of a spirit of love and receive from an attitude of gratefulness. During the hustle and bustle of your day, take two minutes to close your eyes and think about everything you are profoundly grateful for in your life right now.
Think about what life would be like without the people you love, the health you enjoy, the home that shelters you, and the food that is abundant on your table. Flood your mind with feelings of gratitude so there's little room for any worry thoughts. Calmly sit with those feelings for a few minutes, allowing yourself a respite from the incessant chatter in your brain.
Taking the time to clear your mind a few times a day will renew your energy and help you create a new perspective on what's truly important to you this season. How do you clear your mind during times of stress or excessive worry? Please share your experiences in the comments below.