Why You Need a Stress-Busting Stillness Practice - Part 4 of the Four Pillars of Stress Management
Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
For ambitious, goal-driven people, the cultivation of stillness can seem counterproductive. Why would we want to be “still” when there is so much to do and achieve?
The truth is - it’s essential for your health and happiness.
Namaste defines “Stillness” as any practice that helps to calm the mind, soothe the nervous system, and provide the body with a chance to relax. Stillness practices allow us to shift gears from the “fight or flight” high-arousal mode of the stress response to the state of “rest and restore.” Making this switch to deep relaxation is essential for anyone under chronic pressure to perform. Doing so improves our felt sense of wellbeing but also protects us from a host of stress-related chronic diseases.
There are a surprising variety of stillness activities that provide relief from chronic stress, such as deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, restorative yoga, prayer, guided imagery, and gentle “meditative movement” practices, including Tai Chi and QiGong. The key is to find a practice that works for you and that you find enjoyable and sustainable. While most people equate seated contemplative practices with finding stillness, others may opt for practices that align gentle, slow and deliberate movements with the breath, such as gentle yoga or mindful walking.
When the mind and body are in “rest and restore'' mode - characterized by dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system - heart rate and blood pressure are reduced, muscles relax, digestion is improved, and stress hormone production is slowed. In this state, the body can repair and restore homeostasis, recover from stress, and prepare for new experiences. When included as part of daily life, these mind-body practices can protect us from serious stress-related health conditions and even reduce our need for medical interventions.
Here are two simple practices popularized by acclaimed pioneers of the Mind-Body Medicine movement. Backed by evidence, these simple, time-efficient practices can transform your life by helping you to ease stress and find balance.
The Relaxation Response
Herbert Benson, MD, who began his work at Harvard Medical School and who is now Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, created a simple yet profound stress reduction practice in 1975, which he and his team have refined and researched extensively over the years. Called the “Relaxation Response,” the technique includes the six steps: sitting quietly, closing your eyes, progressively relaxing all of your muscles, mindfully breathing slowly and deeply, silently saying a single word or phrase (mantra) when exhaling, and continuing the repetition for 10-20 minutes. While simple, this technique is remarkably powerful. Activating the relaxation response can reduce hypertension, anxiety and depression, pain, as well as other physical manifestations of stress.
The secret to activating the relaxation response is halting our patterns of everyday thinking.
It is similar to many other spiritual practices that invite us to steady our minds with a word or phrase (mantra) so as to eliminate the stressful experience of rumination and over-thinking. By quieting and focusing the mind, our inner dialogue is put on pause. This enables the body to feel safe that it is no longer under threat, which allows for healing and recovery.
Mindfulness is the cultivation of non-judgemental awareness of your mind, body and experience in the present moment. It has roots in Buddhist practices, but modern interpretations of mindfulness make it accessible and relevant for wellbeing and health improvement even without the original religious or spiritual context.
Mindfulness is now an accepted part of popular culture, due in part to the work of mind-body pioneers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, whose popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program is now offered in medical and community centers across the globe. Extensively researched, the program has been shown to significantly improve health conditions, including pain, cancer symptoms, anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
The simplest way to start practicing mindfulness is to bring awareness to the breath. Mindful breathing is accessible and convenient - but not necessarily easy. Our minds are very distractible, so most people find that anchoring the mind on the breath is harder than anticipated. Maintaining a compassionate stance toward our own minds is key. In this practice, we attend to the breath, and when our mind wanders (which it will do), we simply notice and bring it back to the breath. Mindful offers simple instructions for beginning a mindful breath practice. Over time, your mindful awareness of present-moment experience can extend to other activities of daily life, which will reduce stress and support an overall increased sense of life satisfaction. It makes sense.
How can we feel satisfaction with life if we are not “present” to appreciate it? Mindfulness is the antidote to our distracted lives.
Find Your Stillness Style
When choosing a stillness practice, consistency is key. This is why your practice must be both enjoyable and sustainable. Most of us need support to actualize a regular practice, which is where a meditation teacher or coach becomes invaluable. Apps such as Headspace or Insight Timer can also be a great tool in cultivating a daily home practice. Another option is to join a meditation group or yoga studio for community and collective encouragement. Realistically, a combination of all of the above will help to create a solid foundation for practice with a rich landscape. If traditional seated practices are not your style, use your creativity or try any of the following, engaging experts as needed:
QiGong or Tai Chi
Restorative or Yin Yoga
Listening to soothing music
Anything that helps you reign in the activity of your mind and experience a state of deep relaxation can satisfy your essential need for stillness. We would love to hear from you to know how you incorporate stillness into your life. Please comment and share your thoughts!