It’s a well-known fact that meditation is particularly helpful during times of stress. The problem is, that can also be when meditation is the most difficult. The long-term goal is to really formulate a consistent practice that helps you manage everyday stress so that it doesn’t spiral out of control.
But life doesn’t always follow the same plan you have, and we all have times in life where stress surpasses the amount that is considered normal or “everyday.” These times are when meditation practices and relaxation techniques can come to the rescue. But these are also times when your practice may have to shift; it may look different from your normal practice during ultra-stressful times.
I’ve learned this first-hand while struggling through various stressful situations. Even though I have a strong, daily meditation practice, I find it difficult to settle into my normal meditation routine when I’m carrying extra heavy weight on my mind and shoulders. And when my mind can’t focus during meditation, that creates even more stress for me, which can end up in an unhealthy downward spiral. When I catch this and identify when I’m experiencing higher-than-normal stress levels, that’s when I adjust my practice.
Here’s one example: In 2014, I lost my job. This was a job I had for eight years, and I was devastated. I loved the people I worked with, the work I did, and I was extremely worried about my finances. I spent more than 50 hours a week at that job for the better part of a decade, and the layoff came as a shock for many different reasons. When I got the news, I was able to be non-reactive and take time to fully process what was happening instead of reacting in the moment, as the pre-meditation me would have done. However, in the weeks that followed, my normal meditations were particularly difficult, so I began experimenting with other styles. Sound healing meditations, body scans, visualizations, and other forms that forced my mind to go to specific and detailed places instead of just focusing on the breath or a mantra. These more “hands-on” meditations really helped my mind settle down when my stress levels and worries and doubts were through the roof.
Another example where I’ve learned this lesson is in dealing with my mother. She’s been sick since I was eight years old, so I’ve learned to cope with her far-from-healthy state over the years. But when her illness flairs up and she winds up in the hospital, it’s extremely difficult for me to manage the stress. My family spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was younger since both of my parents were sick, so just being in that environment brings up difficult memories, uneasy feelings, and concern. Before I go to be with her when she’s sick, I find it extremely helpful to ground myself through some simple exercises to alleviate some of the stress and pre-hospital anxiety. This also helps me to be more present with her when she’s suffering.
The Negativity Bias
When we’re extra stressed, our minds wander more easily than when we’re not, and those thoughts of negativity and worry become easy for us to focus on. This is just another glamorous part of being a human—our brains have a negativity bias, which means we are far more likely to focus on the negative things in our lives than on the positive. In fact, research has cited that our brains are about five times more likely to focus on a negative or stressful thought than on a positive one.
Rick Hanson, PH.D., psychologist, and NY Times bestselling author said that, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Thoughts have a tendency to race straight to the darker places of worry and pain—and stay there—especially during tough times. This makes meditation more challenging than normal—since our brains have a hard time putting the stressful thoughts aside while meditating.
If you find your meditations more difficult when life gets super hard, try changing up your practice and creating stronger anchors for the mind—something more magnetic than the breath alone. Tough times are when you need meditation the most, and you won’t stick with your practice if your mind refuses to take a break from worry.
Here’s an exercise that includes detailed instructions to create that stronger anchor for your mind.
This exercise for relieving stress is often referred to as the progressive muscle relaxation technique. Dr. Edmund Jacobson developed this technique in the 1920’s, with the notion that tension in the body is usually found when we experience stress and anxiety in the mind. He created this technique to help people learn how to relax and alleviate tension when they are in a situation that makes it difficult for them to relax.
- Close your eyes and get comfortable. You can either sit in a comfortable position or lay down. Make sure your clothes are in no way constricting you and your shoes are off. Use any props, pillows or blankets that may support your comfort level. Comfort is key.
- Take a few deep, cleansing breaths as you begin to still your movements
- Bring all of your attention to your right foot, noticing how it feels. Then tense the entire right foot, making a fist with your entire right foot and all five toes; tense and squeeze it tightly. Hold this tension for a count of 10.
- Then release all tension in the right foot suddenly, relaxing it completely and observing the tension release and the foot feel lighter and more free.
- Take a deep, cleansing breath, then move on…
- Move your attention to your left foot. Same instructions as for the right foot.
Move slowly up and around the body, creating tension and contraction, immediately followed by the contrasting sensation of release and ease. Follow each part with a deep, cleansing breath. Here’s a progression you can follow:
- Right foot, left foot
- Right ankle and calf, left ankle and calf
- Right knee, left knee
- Right thigh, left thigh
- Stomach and core
- Chest and heart
- Right arm, left arm
- Right hand, left hand
- Whole body at once (do this one twice)
Try to only engage one part of the body at a time (except for the final step). When you’re done, spend at least a few minutes focusing on your slow, steady breathing.
The body scan is another exercise that provides a more magnetic anchor during times of high stress. You can find a free, guided audio file of both the 45-minute body scan and the 20-minute body scan here.
*This post was adapted from the book, The Type A’s Guide to Mindfulness: Meditation for Busy Minds and Busy People.