The Master Key to Controlling Stress
The Institute of Heartmath was set up in the early 1990s to further study the role of the physical heart in health and well-being. Their work and its applications have become so successful that their stress-management programs have been taken up around the world, including by all the branches of the U.S. military.
What they discovered was that actively focusing on the physical heart measurably reduced the presence of stress hormones, increased DHEA, and other anti-aging hormone levels, and enabled peak performance in a variety of situations.
While they have developed a number of tools for increasing the coherence between the electromagnetic signals of the heart-brain and the head-brain, they are all built around one basic idea—that when you shift your attention from your head to your heart, your body relaxes, your mind gets clearer, and your brain releases the positive chemical changes of natural relaxation . . .
Become aware that you are experiencing a stressful feeling in your body or that your mind is racing.
Put your hand on your heart and focus your energy into this area. Take at least three slow and gentle breaths into your heart, maintaining your focus on the feeling of your hand in the center of your chest.
Now, recall a time when you felt really, really good—a time you felt love, joy, or real happiness! Return to that memory as if you are back there again right now. See what you saw, hear what you heard, and feel how good you felt.
As you feel this good feeling in your body, imagine your heart could speak to you. Ask your heart how you could take better care of yourself in this moment and in this situation.
Listen to what your heart says in answer to your question and act on it as soon as you can.
The Rhythm of Relaxation
One of the simplest ways to build quality recovery time into an already busy schedule is to take advantage of a naturally occurring phenomenon known as the “ultradian rest phase.”
Recent research has shown that the mind and body have their own pattern of rest or alertness with one predominant cycle that occurs approximately every 90 minutes. This is when the body stops externally oriented behavior and takes about 15 minutes to relax and replenish its energy.
These are those moments in the day when you find your mind starting to wander and a sweet, soft feeling of relaxation begins to fill your body. It is as though your body is ready to drift off into a wonderful, refreshing sleep.
Unfortunately, many people instantly override this message from their body by choking down a double espresso and trying even harder to concentrate on what they’re doing. After a while, they establish a pattern of overriding their body’s natural rhythm and the natural feeling of relaxation comes less and less often.
The good news is that all you need to do to bring it back is to allow yourself to take advantage of it when it does occur.
Use your most comfortable, tired, drowsy voice, as if telling yourself a bedtime story. Simply say each of the following to yourself as you follow your own instructions . . .
Now I relax my eyes
Now I relax my jaw
Now I relax my tongue
Now I relax my shoulders
Now I relax my arms
Now I relax my hands
Now I relax my chest
Now I relax my stomach
Now I relax my thighs
Now I relax my calves
Now I relax my feet
Now I relax my mind
Pause for a little while to notice the feelings and then, if you wish, repeat it. Stay with this feeling as long as you wish. You will be able to return to full waking consciousness, refreshed and alert, as soon as you are ready.
The Calm Anchor
In the same way as the anchor of a boat helps keep it steady in the midst of stormy seas, an emotional anchor helps you to stay calm in the midst of your daily life. But unlike the anchor of a boat, an emotional anchor actually gets stronger the more you use it.
Remember a time when you felt really, really calm—at peace and in control. Fully return to it now, seeing what you saw, hearing what you heard and feeling how good you felt. (If you can’t remember a time, imagine how wonderful it would feel to be totally at peace—if you had all the ease, comfort, and self-control you could ever need!)
As you keep running through this experience in your mind, make the colors brighter and richer, the sounds crisper, and the feelings stronger. When you are feeling these good feelings, squeeze the thumb and middle finger of your right hand together. You are associating this particular pressure in this particular place with this particular emotion. Run through this memory several times until you feel a lovely sense of inner peace and calm.
Now go through this relaxing memory at least five more times while continuing to squeeze your thumb and middle finger together to really lock in these good feelings. You will know you have done it enough when all you need to do is squeeze your fingers together and you can easily remember the feelings of calm and relaxation spreading through your body.
Next, think about a situation that in the past you would have found mildly stressful. (We will deal with any “high-stress” situations in the next exercise.) Once again, squeeze your thumb and middle finger together. Feel that calm feeling spreading through your body and imagine taking it with you into that stressful situation. Imagine everything going perfectly, exactly the way that you want. See what you’ll see, hear what you hear, and feel how good it feels to be so much calmer and in control in this situation.
Now, still squeezing your thumb and finger together, remember that calm feeling of being in control and once again imagine being in that situation that used to seem stressful. This time, imagine a few challenges occurring and notice yourself handling all the challenges perfectly. See what you’ll see, hear what you hear, and feel how good it feels to be so much calmer and in control in this situation.
Stop and think about that situation now. Notice the difference from only a few minutes ago. Do you feel less stressed and more in control? If not, just repeat the exercise until you do!
Making Peace with Your Mind
Although we have already seen how most worry is simply a halfway house on the way to a creative solution, sometimes knowing what can be done still isn’t enough to stop the train of worry thoughts in its tracks.
Have you ever had the experience of wanting two seemingly conflicting things to happen simultaneously?
Perhaps one part of you wanted to go out to a bar while another part wanted to stay in and prepare for the next day’s “big event,” or part of you wanted to be thin while another part wanted to polish off a dozen donuts and 16 pints of beer. In most cases, whichever part has the strongest intention will determine which choices get made.
Now it’s not as though there are actually little “parts” running around inside of us, determining what we do and don’t do all day long. The idea of “parts” is just a simple way of understanding the different aspects of our personality.
Think about something you have been worrying about.
Ask yourself: “What is the positive intention of this worry? What is it doing for me? What does it do for me, get me, or give me?” Very often, the answer will simply be some variation on “to keep me safe.”
When you’ve got an answer that feels right to you, ask your mind to come up with at least three new ways that you could get all the positive benefit of the worry without having to take on the stress and uncomfortable feelings.
Check to make sure that you are completely comfortable with taking on these new alternatives to worrying. If there is any hesitation, go back to your mind and ask it to sort out any internal conflicts. You will know you’re ready to move on when you are feeling completely at peace with your new alternatives.
Healing the Past
While not everyone can change every traumatic memory that quickly, it is surprising how often they can. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly a human being can change when the right approach is used.
While dealing with a trauma requires professional assistance, you can use this same technique to free yourself from any recurring or persistent memories or worries . . .
Imagine that you are in a comfortable movie theater. Sit down in the most comfortable chair you can find—the kind that you would almost be concerned you might fall asleep in if the movie was a bit boring.
Now, imagine that you can float up out of your body and into the projection booth. Stand behind the solid glass of the projection booth and look down into the theater until you can see the back of your head down there, looking up at the movie screen.
You are going to watch a film of the traumatic memory. However, before you do, mark two spots in the film—a few frames before the event ever happened, and another a few frames after you successfully came out on the other side of whatever that event was.
Place a still image of the BEFORE frame up onto the screen. Safely behind the solid glass of the projection booth, watch yourself down in the comfy theater watching the film of what happened up on the screen all the way to the moment AFTER you successfully came out on the other side of whatever that event was. When you get to the end, freeze the AFTER image up on the screen.
Now, run the film backwards as fast as you can. See all the images going backwards, the sound running backwards, everything moving in reverse, all the way back to the beginning before it ever happened.
Repeat steps 4 and 5 at least three times until the memory has lost its emotional impact.