1. Clear clutter
Oftentimes, chronic stress and indecision go hand in hand. What's the connection with clutter? People who accumulate clutter tend to have trouble deciding what to do with their stuff (“I'll keep this catalogue/insurance form/magazine article until I can find the time to deal with it”). In one study, when compulsive hoarders and nonhoarders were asked to make decisions about whether to keep or discard an item, MRI scans showed much more activity in brain areas that regulate decision making, attention, and controlling emotions in the hoarders. In other words, they had a much harder time deciding.
Keep a handle on your clutter and you'll likely discover a greater sense of control over your life. Start with one small area. For example, make it a solemn rule to completely clean off the kitchen counter every single night, even if that means piling the junk on another surface. Wipe it down with cleanser so it really shines. Savor the sight of a clean surface to reinforce your progress. Then add another rule: Completely clean off the table. And another: Clean out the sink. Continue until you can maintain several areas of your home without clutter.
Conquering clutter is a constant battle with no finish line-you must continue to make those decisions, and not put them off, if you want to stay on top of things. Make it easier by getting rid of stuff you don't need. Try putting items up for sale on the free want-ad site www.craigslist.org-freedom from clutter is its own reward, but a few extra dollars never hurt either.
2. Learn to focus and calm your thoughts
To quiet down the chatter in your mind, simply close your eyes and focus on your breath, “watching” it flow in and out of your nostrils. If thoughts pop up about the groceries, the bills, or the state of the economy, notice them and then redirect your attention to your breath. Keep doing this for 5 minutes. At first you might spend 20 seconds truly focused on your breath and 4 minutes and 40 seconds redirecting your thoughts away from your worries, but that ratio should improve with practice. This little 5-minute exercise-which, by the way, is mediation, though you don't have to think of it that way-has been shown to lower heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, anxiety, pain, insomnia, and the production of cortisol-pretty much a one-stop shop for stress reduction. Want better focus? Especially in older people, regular meditation can actually thicken the prefrontal cortex, which tends to thin with age, making it more difficult to pay sustained attention.
3. Listen to hypnosis CDs.
Hypnosis may sound like quack medicine, but some research shows that it can be tremendously useful. One Yale University study found that hypnosis cut presurgery anxiety in patients entering the operating room by more than half. Other research suggests that hypnosis may be even more helpful at relieving anxiety than cognitive behavioral therapy. To find a licensed psychologist certified in hypnosis, ask your family doctor or your regular psychologist for a referral. Be sure to discuss the different methods of hypnosis available, and which may be best for you. You might also consider investing in a hypnosis CD that your psychologist recommends.
4. Keep a gratitude journal.
If your worry book is a strictly functional memo pad, make your gratitude journal a beautiful, hardbound book with luscious paper-an object you love to look at and feel in your hands. Write in this journal for 5 minutes a day, jotting down the top three things you are grateful for that day. Make them detailed and specific. Instead of writing “I'm grateful for my family,” write “I'm grateful that my granddaughters came for dinner tonight. I love to watch them learn how to use proper manners. I'm grateful they live nearby so I can watch them grow up.” Over time, doing this routinely will help you start to notice the beauty and grace of each day as it happens.
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5. Create a worry book.
Worriers need a place to deposit their negative thoughts. Keep a small memo pad handy, and whenever you feel yourself starting to worry about something, open it and do a “brain dump”-write down everything that's concerning you, without thinking about how you're saying it or whether you've said it a thousand times before. Putting thoughts on paper can help break a repetitive cycle of worry, which can deplete your capacity for performing other cognitive tasks.
One British study found that handwringers performed worse on a cognitive test when they were thinking about a current worry, suggesting that chronic fretters have less working memory capacity when worrying than when thinking about other topics. Just getting it out of your head and down on paper will help.
6. Label the feeling.
One of the cornerstone teachings of mindfulness meditation is to learn to recognize stress and other emotions without giving into them. Here's how it works: You remember that your performance review at work is next week, and you're not sure what your boss is going to say. Your heart starts to pound or your mind starts spinning with possible scenarios. Rather than try to talk yourself out of the stress or pretend it's not there, you simply look inward and label how you're feeling. You might say “nervous” or “anxious,” objectifying the emotion as a scientist would. With practice, this technique has been shown to help people head off the cascade of negative emotions that comes from stress.
Functional MRI scans of people's brains, taken while they matched facial expressions to appropriate emotional labels, have shown that labeling emotions activates the prefrontal cortex, the seat of logical thinking and emotional control, and reduces activity in the amygdala, the seat of reactive, primal emotion such as fear.
7. Create a personal mantra.
If you're going through a stressful period or you tend toward anxious thoughts, a personal mantra can help you refocus your mind on positive thoughts. To create yours, make a list of the three things that matter to you most. Then think of one word that represents each. Choose positive, powerful words that resonate deeply with you. Let's say your top three things are a close family, good health, and the environment. Your mantra could become, “Love, strength, Earth.” Whenever you are presented with a challenging situation, recite your mantra in your head. Speak the words to yourself as you walk down the street, head into a meeting, or work in your garden, timing them with each step or arm movement.
8. Imagine the worst-case scenario.
Sometimes forcing yourself to think of the worst thing can be the best thing for an anxious brain. If you find yourself trapped in “what-ifs,” a common state of mind for people with chronic anxiety, face your fears head-on: “If the stock market doesn't recover, I won't recover my lost savings and I'll be forced to live on the street.” When you say it out loud, doesn't it seem a little far-fetched? What's more likely to happen?
Imagining worst-case scenarios accomplishes two things: It helps you see how unlikely the fear really is, and it helps you confront the fear head-on so you can prepare at least a tentative plan for recovery.