To tame tension, it helps to tackle both its physical and psychological dimensions. Here are some of the most important steps you can take, according to Mark Abramson, D.D.S., who teaches
two stress-management courses at the Stanford University Center for Integrative Medicine and the Health Improvement Program at Stanford University Medical School:
Fill the balloon. Deep breathing has been shown to rapidly calm the body’s physical response to stress. “Done properly, three breaths will lower your heart rate and blood pressure,” says Dr. Abramson. “It’s a very powerful tool, but people generally don’t understand how to do it right.” Most people breathe in a shallow way that makes the chest expand, with the diaphragm pushing upward. Deeper, stress-relieving breaths, however, should make the diaphragm move downward, expanding your belly. “Picture a balloon under your belly button that you need to fill,” says Dr. Abramson. “As you draw air in, imagine the balloon expanding, then slowly let the air out.”
Put periods in your thoughts. Most stress comes from worrying about the past or the future. “You’ll feel less stress if you can stay focused on the present, where there’s a finite number of things you have to deal with emotionally,” says Dr. Abramson. Start by simply acknowledging — and accepting — what you’re feeling right now, without thinking about why or what to do about it. “Be with what is,” Dr. Abramson explains. “We tend to think in run-on sentences. Just think, ‘I’m frustrated’ and end the sentence there.” If your mind strays to the future, consciously bring it back to the moment at hand. Deep breathing can help you stay centered on the here and now.
Practice thanksgiving. Before a meal — or whenever else seems appropriate — make a point of giving thanks. Such habits encourage an awareness of what’s good about the present moment — and how things we take for granted (regular meals, a place to live, the luxury of a shower every morning) are true blessings.
Be kind to yourself. Most of us judge ourselves harshly, straining for perfection and beating ourselves up for mistakes. “Consciously say to yourself, ‘I don’t have to be perfect,’” says Dr. Abramson. “Feeling more forgiving of yourself will not only relieve tension in the moment, it’ll also improve the way you treat others, which leads to better relationships and further stress reduction over the long term.”