Here in the real world, you've got two choices: A) Ignore the crick in your neck, wash your rising panic down with coffee and a pastry from the office kitchen, and forge ahead, hoping the sugar crash doesn't come too quickly. Or B) Take half a minute to do a simple stretch that releases your tight muscles, a breathing exercise to let go of stress, or a quick meditation technique that quiets your swirling thoughts.
Most of us would like to choose feeling better, rather than perpetuate the misery. Luckily, we have a vast arsenal of simple techniques at our disposal.
Drawn from the ancient practices of yoga, traditional Chinese Medicine, and herbalism, they can empower you to get calmer, more resilient, and happier in the midst of even the crappiest day. Use these 10 when life is at its most chaotic -- no two-week spa visit required.
1. Aggressive People
Some people -- drunk 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. Your best antidote is to inflate yourself through some postural adjustments. If your body projects confidence, your mind will naturally follow suit.
Remedy: Inflate yourself
Time: As long as you need
Try It: 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.
Whoops. You've slept right through the alarm, and now you need to get up and out the door in record time. Don't waste your precious energy and limited time beating yourself up. Your best strategy is to make yourself presentable as quickly as you can 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 will be so thankful you took those few minutes to give your body the fuel it needs.
Remedy: An energizing breakfast
Time: 5 minutes
Try It: 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). Grab your fruit and give it a quick scrub under running water. Dry it with a kitchen towel. Take a handful of nuts and throw them in a baggie. Run out the door. Eat in the car, on the bus or train, or even at your desk.
3. Computer Crash
You're poised to complete your presentation when kablooey. You get the blue screen of death. You push buttons frantically, trying to remember how long ago you last saved your work, while your heart rate soars. Your data may or may not be lost, but you don't have to completely wig out. You have two powerful tools on your side: your breath and gravity. 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
Try It: 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.
4. Looming Deadlines
You have a major project due. You know it's time to focus, but for some reason you just can't get started. There are so many things on your to-do list that you don't know where to begin. When you're finally ready to dive in, chatty Patty stops by, you get called into yet another meeting, or the phone rings. 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
Try It: 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 beats before you get busy.
5. Job Interview
It's a big day for you. 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 are 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 before you head in for the big meeting.
Remedy: Alternate nostril breathing
Time: 1 to 5 minutes
Try It: 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.
6. Road Rage
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 what you're saying.
Why not curse them, their mother, their dog, and all future generations of their offspring? The problem is, if you launch into a violent rant that no one can hear, you give anger a green light to overtake your body and influence your actions. Here's a better way to consciously let go.
Remedy: Tighten and release
Time: 1 to 2 minutes
Try It: Start at the top of your body and work your way down. Inhale and squeeze your face as tight as you can (while still 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 beat, 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 (again, go only as far as feels safe, or wait until you're stopped at a red light) and then exhale and release. Repeat another time or two. Each time you do, you'll root out even more tension.
Mr. Sandman has lost your number, and he's left you crying for a little shut-eye. This simple breathing technique helps for three reasons: You can do it even when you're lying in bed and exhausted; a longer exhale requires a little act of surrender and helps you purge any remaining tension; and counting the length of your breaths can take your attention off your thoughts.
Remedy: Extended Exhale Breathing
Time: As long as you like
Try It: Lie on your back. Place a pillow under your head and one under your knees to encourage the muscles in your lower back and abdomen to release completely, which enables you to breathe more deeply. Rest your hands on your belly and spend a few breaths feeling your hands rise as you inhale and fall on the exhale. Once this belly breathing has helped you calm down a little, try to 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.
Instead of eagerly anticipating future events, you're working yourself into a tizzy by imagining various 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. When your thoughts start spiraling out of control, here's how to find your way back to stable ground.
Remedy: Stimulate Your "Letting Go"
Time: 2 to 3 minutes
Try It: 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 the Letting Go points, applying gentle but firm pressure. Breathe deeply as you continue pressing these points for three minutes. Release gradually.
9. Crowded Bus, Subway, or Train
There are people filling every crevice of available space around you. You may even 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. This meditation technique takes place somewhere vast and invisible -- your mind. It requires concentration but gives your anxious mind a chance to rest.
Remedy: The Human Tape Recorder
Time: As long as you remain in your crowded space
Try It: Turn your attention to focus on what you can hear. You'll likely notice that one noise jumps out at you, and it's probably the loudest or most annoying. Now see what else you can hear at the same time. 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. You decide how long to keep it up, whether it's until you reach your destination, or when you've become calmer. Before you immerse yourself back in your normal thoughts, however, note how you feel now compared with when you started. It may be a subtle or profound difference -- either way is perfect.
You've both just said some things to each other 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. Do the following exercise wherever you are for as little or as long as you like -- whatever it takes for you to start feeling better.
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. (Bare feet are preferable but not required.) Slowly peel your right foot off the floor and place it approximately 1 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. Continue taking one mindful step at a time. Take care to feel the ground beneath your feet and the shifting sensations in your body as you do. Notice when you feel the urge to rush, or when something distracts you. Then just continue putting one foot in front of the other until you feel calmer, clearer, and more grounded.
Text by Kate Hanley
© 2013 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.