Seven Mindful Practices to Transform Stress

There’s no way to escape it: If you’re alive, you experience stress. It might come in the form of a fast-paced job with tight deadlines, difficulty paying bills, family strife, even negative self-talk. Most of us don’t give a lot of thought to whether repeated daily stressors could be having a negative impact on our physical and mental health—but that doesn’t mean the impact doesn’t exist.

Multiple studies have shown that chronic stress can make us more susceptible to everything from the common cold to a heart attack. Every time we elicit the stress response (that is, every time we fight, flee, or freeze in response to stress), we change the function of every organ in the body. Stress hormones like cortisol raise glucose and insulin in the blood, which can lead to diabetes. They also raise blood pressure, which causes hypertension; produce chronic muscle tension, which causes pain; and imbalance neurotransmitters like serotonin, leading to depression and anxiety.

You can transform stress by intentionally activating the relaxation response, which increases blood flow to the brain and releases chemicals that make your organs slow down. Here are seven step to transform stress:

  1. Develop self-awareness. Yoga and meditation are great ways to start observing yourself. In fact, a recent study shows that practicing mindfulness meditation just 25 minutes a day for three consecutive days helps to reduce stress.
  2. Express yourself. Writing, dancing, painting—all of these activities release physical and/or emotional tension and bring us into the present moment. Expressing ourselves creatively in whatever way feels best can help us process what’s happening in our lives.
  3. Be here now. Notice when you’re daydreaming about the past or the future. We often spend time thinking about how things should have happened or worrying about what might happen. This should raise a red flag that you’re no longer in the present moment.
  4. Find community. Isolation is a tremendous stressor in our culture. Consciously cultivate relationships with people who encourage the best in you.
  5. Identify stressful thoughts and beliefs. Eavesdropping on your internal dialogue—the various self-defeating, self-critical, and anxiety-provoking thoughts rummaging around in your head—is well worth the time. Meditation is a great practice for this, or writing down your stressful thoughts as a means of releasing them.
  6. Do experiments. Identify one concern you have about your life or health, and come up with a new way to deal with it. Ready to swap out your sugar-filled breakfast pastry, for example? Try starting your day with eggs and avocado on a bed of spinach for a couple of weeks and notice how you feel. Pay attention to the new experience. These small experiments can have a lasting effect.
  7. Avoid judgment. Notice when you criticize yourself and others—and say something kind instead. Habitual negative self-talk keeps us in a state of fight or flight. The practice of self-observation without judgment is perhaps the most powerful way to transform stress into creative energy.

Practicing these mindful-living strategies for a few minutes each day can help us leave behind habitual fear- or anger-based reactions in favor of more thoughtful, creative, and appropriate responses to life’s inevitable challenges.

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