I remember one time my girlfriend and I were cuddled up on the sofa, watching a movie. But then something happened that really made me think.
The movie was a thriller, and as the tension was building to a climax – I could feel my girlfriend grip my hand tighter and tighter. That’s normal and expected (and to tell you the truth, I was probably gripping back!)
But the strange thing was that after the scene changed, and the on-screen tension subsided, my girlfriend’s hand was gripping just as tightly as it was before.
So I paused the film and asked her – ‘do you realize you’re still gripping my hand?’
She had no idea!
This is a perfect example of how stress creeps into our lives unnoticed. Because it’s not that stress itself is terrible. In fact, stress is beneficial in many ways. It’s how we get stronger (exercise stresses the muscles) – it’s how we learn – it can be invigorating (cold showers and saunas) – and it can be fun (hence our love of roller coasters and scary movies). This beneficial kind of stress is known scientifically as eustress.
Let go of the grip of stress
Our body has evolved the above responses to deal with stress in its own way.
The problem with stress comes when we don’t let go of that ‘grip’.
In the wild, prey animals are masters of stress. While being chased by a predator, they use the adrenalin rush to enter a state of peak performance. Their mind and body become focused on a single task – getting away from the attacker as fast as possible.
But once they get away, and there is no predator in sight, they just shake it all off and get back to grazing as if nothing has happened.
As humans, we have a tougher time. Instead of shaking the stress off, we take our powerful capacity for imagination – and we plug it right into our natural fight or flight response. We create elaborate stories about the event. We keep imagining how bad it could have been. How bad it might be in the future. We plan our revenge. We find someone to blame… And all the while, the tension in our bodies and our minds remains active.
How can we use meditation to deal with stress?
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy for us to just decide not to be stressed any more. And this is where meditation comes in.
If done right, meditation can be a powerful way of unwinding chronic stress and letting go of that gripping in both your body and your mind.
1. Focus on the present moment
When we want to deal with stress, we tend to focus on it and devise a plan for how to fix it.
Focusing on solving stress seems like the right thing to do – but actually, it’s creating more concepts, ideas and thoughts around the stress itself – like mental scar tissue forming over a cut.
With meditation, we want to focus on the present moment. Not on our story or ideas of what is stressing us out or even solutions for it. With our awareness focused on the present, our subconscious mind can slowly soften, relax and unwind from the stress naturally and in its own time. Don’t force anything – that creates more stress – not less!
2. Use your body to affect your mind
We generally suffer most from mental stress. We worry about work, our relationships, even the environment. This constant mental worry will invariably create tension in your body – and you won’t even notice it happening.
Often, the tension in your body acts as an anchor for mental stress. Let go of the physical tension, and the mental stress dissolves by itself.
When feeling particularly stressed, take extra time to relax your body. You can make use of Declutter The Mind’s guided relaxation session any time you need.
Pay particular attention to letting go. When you scan your mind through your body, any time you find even the tiniest bit of tension or holding, just let it go. What you will find is that when you’ve managed to let go on one ‘layer’ of the body, your awareness can penetrate deeper – and you’ll discover new layers of tension to let go.
This can seem a little disconcerting at first – because it feels like the tension is endless. You let go of one tense area, only for another one to appear. But rest assured that it’s like peeling layers of an onion. As you deal with stress at ever deeper layers, you will find that you can begin to function at a much more efficient level than before.
You see, holding tension requires effort and energy. When you let go of stress in this way – layer by layer in your body – you free up all this energy and vitality that you can now use in all other parts of your life.
3. Meditate on the breath
As well as being the most common way to get into a meditative state, meditation on the breath also has a particularly beneficial effect on mental stress.
You will notice that when you’re stressed, worried or scared – that your breath will be quite different to when you’re calm and centred. It will feel more choppy, shallower and faster.
You can’t force your breath to be smooth, calm and relaxed – but if you give it your mindful attention, it will naturally become that way by itself. Not only that, but it will also help to calm and quieten your mind too.
4. Meditate regularly
By meditating regularly – letting go of layers of physical tension, being in the present moment and allowing your breath to become full and smooth, you create a deep-seated resilience in your being.
This means that not only can you let go of stress more easily when it does come up, but you’ll find that things that used to make you stressed simply don’t seem to matter so much anymore. Stress just can’t get a foothold anymore.
When it comes to understanding how to deal with stress, it’s sometimes more important to maintain regular habits that keep you in a good mental place so that when stress comes, you’re better prepared to deal with it.
The easiest way to make meditation a regular habit is to use an app like Declutter The Mind. Just follow the simple instructions, and in no time you’ll begin to see the benefits of this amazing practice.