The phone is ringing, you've just received an annoying email from a coworker, and there's a big meeting in 10 minutes.
Here in the real world, you've got two choices: Ignore the crick in your neck, wash your panic down with coffee and a pastry, and forge ahead, hoping the sugar crash doesn't come too quickly. Or, take 30 seconds to stretch tight muscles, try a stress-busting breathing exercise, or quiet your thoughts with a quick meditation technique.
Based on yoga, traditional Chinese medicine, and herbalism, the following strategies -- adapted from "The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide" by Kate Hanley -- can empower you to get calmer, more resilient, and happier in the midst of even the most chaotic day.
You've slept right through the alarm -- there's no time to waste beating yourself up. Your best strategy is to make yourself presentable ASAP and leave the house with everything you need for the day -- which includes breakfast. If you don't have the ingredients on hand, you can find them at practically any food store -- even 7-Eleven carries fruit and nuts. By the time 10:30 a.m. rolls around, you'll be thankful you invested those few minutes.
Remedy: An energizing breakfast
Time: 5 minutes
You'll need an apple or pear (keeps you full for much longer than its less-than-100 calories might suggest) and raw nuts, such as almonds or cashews (which boost your stores of energy). Give the fruit a quick scrub under running water and dry with a kitchen towel. Toss a handful of nuts in a baggie. Eat in the car, on the bus or train, or even at your desk.
You're poised to complete your presentation when kablooey -- the blue screen of death. You push buttons frantically while your heart rate soars. But you don't have to freak out: Breathing deeply and stretching your back helps you pull it together while you wait for the help desk to answer your call.
Remedy: Chair forward bend
Time: 1 to 2 minutes
Push your chair back so that you have at least 2 feet of clearance between you and the desk. Scooch way back and bring your knees to the outer edges of the seat. Take a deep breath. Exhale and bend at the hips, laying your torso on the inside of your thighs, and let your head and arms dangle toward the floor. As you inhale, feel your rib cage expanding in all directions. Take 10 deep breaths, then roll up slowly to a seated position.
A major project is due. It's time to focus, but there are so many things on your to-do list that you don't know where to begin. Rather than force yourself to get started through sheer will alone, let this super-simple visualization blaze a mental trail you can easily follow.
Remedy: One-minute visualization
Time: 60 seconds
Sit comfortably in a chair (or, if possible, lie on a couch). Close your eyes and listen to the soothing sound of your own breath. Think of releasing tension each time you exhale. Visualize yourself doing everything it will take for you to meet your deadline. Be as specific as you can. Feel your fingers flying across the keyboard, for example, and notice how relaxed your body feels when you are working "in the zone." Finally, see yourself finishing with plenty of time to spare. Gently open your eyes and sit quietly for a few seconds before you get busy.
You want to wow 'em with your confidence and smarts, but you can't be all drive and focus; you also need to remain open and receptive. This exercise clears your head so that you're able to speak eloquently, think on your feet, and take in subtle clues about what it would actually feel like to work for this company. Do it before you leave the house or in your car.
Remedy: Alternate nostril breathing
Time: 1 to 5 minutes
Sitting up tall, fold the index and middle fingers of your right hand into your palm. Rest your right ring finger on the left side of your nose and the thumb on the right, just below the bridge. Gently press your thumb to block your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril. Release your thumb, press your ring finger to close off your left nostril, and exhale through the right nostril. Then inhale through the right nostril, close it off, and exhale through the left. Repeat for up to five minutes. End with an exhale through the left nostril.
Some people -- drunken guys, impatient line-waiters, taxi stealers -- just don't take no for an answer. You hope to hold your ground, but often, some part of you just wants to crawl under the nearest chair. But if you project confidence with your body, your mind will naturally follow suit.
Remedy: Inflate yourself
Time: As long as you need
Plant your feet flat on the ground and lift the back of your neck up toward the ceiling. Keep your chin slightly lifted and your chest open with your hands by your sides or clasped behind your back so as not to block your belly, the source of personal power. Keep your knees soft while grounding through the soles of your feet to draw strength. Voila -- you instantly project a confident presence.
There's something about being sealed inside your own pod of a car that makes it feel safe to really let your anger fly when someone cuts you off in traffic. After all, they can't hear you. The problem is, if you launch into a violent rant, you give anger a green light to overtake your body and influence your actions.
Remedy: Tighten and release
Time: 1 to 2 minutes
Start at the top and work your way down: Inhale and squeeze your face as tight as you can (keeping your eyes on the road, of course), and then release all that effort with an exhale. Draw your shoulders up toward your ears and hold them there for a second, then exhale and release. Squeeze the steering wheel and tighten all the muscles in your arms, then release. Pull your belly button in, hold for a moment, then let go. Clench your butt, thighs, calves, and feet as tightly as you can (only as far as feels safe, or wait for a red light), then exhale and release. Repeat as needed to root out more tension.
Mr. Sandman's lost your number, and left you crying for a little shut-eye. You can do this breathing technique when you're lying in bed and exhausted: It helps you purge any tension and can take your attention off your thoughts.
Remedy: Extended-exhale breathing
Time: As long as you like
Lie on your back. Place a pillow under your head and one under your knees to encourage your lower back and abdomen to relax completely, which enables you to breathe more deeply. Rest your hands on your belly and feel your hands rise as you inhale and fall on the exhale. Once this has helped you calm down a little, inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight. If this count causes you any strain, modify it to a more appropriate length, with the exhale twice as long as the inhale. Repeat until you feel yourself getting sleepy, verrrrry sleeeeeepyyyy.
Working yourself into a tizzy by imagining worst-case scenarios? According to Chinese medicine, stimulating acupressure points on the outer chest, known as "Letting Go," can balance the emotions by reducing tension in the chest and encouraging deep breathing.
Remedy: Stimulate your "letting go"
Time: 2 to 3 minutes
Locate your "letting go" points by first finding your collarbones. They start at the bony points just below the hollow of your throat. Follow the bones out toward your shoulders. "Letting go" is located on either side of your chest, three finger widths below the outer edges of the collarbones, in line with the inner edge of your armpits. Press your fingertips into these points, applying gentle but firm pressure. Breathe deeply as you continue pressing these points for three minutes. Release gradually.
You've both said things that sting. Your chest is heaving, your face is flushed, and your emotions are raging. You have to find a way to dissipate the riled-up energy that's coursing through your body, and sitting and breathing is just not going to cut it right now.
Remedy: Walking meditation
Time: 1 minute or more
Try it: Stand with your feet together and look at the floor a few feet ahead of you. Slowly peel your right foot off the floor and place it one foot in front of its starting position. Feel every sensation as you transfer your weight to your right foot -- how your left foot lifts off the floor, how your center of gravity shifts forward. Take one mindful step at a time, feeling the ground beneath your feet and the shifting sensations in your body. Notice when you feel the urge to rush, or when something distracts you. Put one foot in front of the other until you feel calmer, clearer, and more grounded.
There are people filling every crevice of space around you. You may be forced to stand for what could be a long ride. You need something to help you settle in and enjoy the trip without getting so zoned out that you miss your stop.
Remedy: The Human Tape Recorder
Time: As long as you remain in your crowded space
Focus on what you can hear. One noise probably jumps out at you, the loudest or most annoying one. Now see what else you can hear. Try to divide your attention equally between every noise that enters your ears. This becomes easier with practice. Notice when a particular sound has drawn your full attention or when you've drifted off into a daydream, and resume dividing your focus between everything you can hear. Before you immerse yourself back in your normal thoughts, note how you feel compared with when you started.