You need to drop the rent in the mailbox, but not now; you’re running late. The water pressure in the shower this morning was so low, there’s still shampoo in your hair, and you had to use a dirty towel, because you haven’t had time to drop off the laundry. You almost get hit by a bus crossing the street, and there are no cabs as usual, so you head down to the hot, humid subway. You swipe your card, but there’s not enough money on it for fare, so you run over to the machine, which won’t read your credit card, just as your train speeds by. When another train finally comes, it’s packed with soulless eyes, the look hammered into the faces of those who have been commuting into the city for years. You want to judge the lady in the pencil skirt and dirty sneakers, before you realize she probably has kids and had to literally run to catch two trains this morning. Which reminds you, add “have kids” to your to-do list, after “pay off student loans” and “find a partner.” You follow the bottleneck up to street level, body sweating, heart racing, makeup melting. Jaw clenched. It’s 8 a.m. You’re a New Yorker.
Whether you live in a big city or a suburb, your morning is probably some version of this chaotic scenario. Unless, of course, you’re one of the few people who never get stressed out. These people exist – in fact, I’m engaged to one. Living with someone who never gets stressed is like watching an exotic animal at the zoo. You have no idea where they came from or how they got that way, and it fascinates and confuses you. For the rest of us, stress is the new American epidemic. We know we have too much of it, but we don’t know what to do about it. The advice telling you how to rid your life of stress is about as helpful as the advice telling you to bleach your eyebrows at home. You just end up crying in the bathroom mirror, a failure. You can, however, control how you respond to stress, and by controlling that response you can make yourself an emotionally and physically healthier person, no crying required.
The easiest and most effective way of learning how to manage your stress response is through meditation. Cue the eye roll. You can’t meditate, right? You definitely don’t have time to sit around, and there’s no way you can stop your mind from racing and think about nothing! Well, fear not, little stress balls. I’ve broken down meditation into a few super-easy steps that you can do for five minutes or 25 minutes, anywhere you please. You can thank me later.
There are many different types of meditation and endless ways to approach it. The steps I’m giving you are ones I’ve adapted from my hypnotist (relax y’all, hypnotism is just guided meditation, same thing), Grace Smith. I also practice meditation with my girlfriend and Zen master Kerry Docherty, founder of The Mindful Mentors.
Now that you’re comfortable, close your eyes and start with some slow, deep breathing. Mindfulness meditation is all about being present. Focus on your breath, notice what it feels like going in and out of you. What do you hear? What do you smell? When your mind wanders to that sarcastic comment your coworker made about your new haircut, GOD she is so!...just gently remind yourself to focus on your breath. The most common misconception is that meditation is the art of thinking about nothing, and that’s not even possible. It’s about calming the mind, not emptying it.
Pick your favorite color, and picture it slowly washing over you from head to toe. This step alone is perfect if you only have a few minutes and need to hit the reset button. Listen to your body, when you feel that negative stress reaction rise up inside of you, find a place to sit and do this step. I guarantee you’ll feel better after a few minutes.
3. Body Scan
A body scan is simply checking in with your body, step-by-step, and just noticing what’s going on. Start with your toes. How do your toes feel? Are they cold? Are they aching from being crammed in your Jimmy Choos all day? If so, what does that ache feel like? Instead of fighting the pain, can you accept it? Go up to the ankle next and so on. A body scan is also great if you have pain in a specific area, like a headache. Sit and just notice the headache for a while, all aspects of it. Then imagine the pain releasing, dissipating, floating away. When we have pain, it causes us distress, so we fight it. If you can learn to accept the pain, you might find that it has less power over you.
Repeat the color step.
5. Three Things
Think of three things that you want to have, be, or do, and say them in the present tense. For instance, “I am happy, I am healthy, I am powerful.” It can be about anything you want: work, family, love, health. Say it over and over again until you believe it. This step harnesses the power of positive thinking. The body believes what the mind thinks.
6. Guided Imagery
This step is my favorite, because it makes you feel so good. Picture your life exactly how you want it to be, and dream big. Imagine it down to the littlest detail — the job of your dreams, that penthouse apartment, the three kids playing...oh hey Ryan Gosling, wanna hang out forever? Stay in this moment for as long as you want. Play it out; make it live.
Repeat color step.
If you only have a few minutes, pick any one of the steps and just do that one, ideally you can take about 20 minutes and go through all the steps. The idea is to remove yourself from a currently stressful moment, an obsession about the past, or a worry about the future, and just be present. With practice, you’ll find that stressful situations or things that used to get under your skin are easier for you to handle. You will be able to remove yourself from that rush of emotion and have less freak-outs, which, aside from my fiancé, we’ve all had.
Meditation is a practice. Put it into your schedule every day, and also use it as needed during particularly stressful moments. Good times to practice daily meditation are when you wake up, on the subway, during your lunch break, or before bed. Meditation puts me to sleep every night, a huge accomplishment for a former jaw-clenching insomniac.
Over time, you’ll be able to stay focused on being present for longer periods of time, and you’ll find you are less reactive to the stress in your life. It takes work, but you can change the pathways in your brain and make new, healthier pathways. Meditation won’t fix the water pressure in your shower, and you might still forget to fill up your Metrocard, but you'll no longer get heart palpitations when you miss your train.