Three (Healthy) Ways to Cope with Stress

by Deborah Metzger, Founder and Director, Princeton Center for Yoga & Health

Town Topics August 2011

Are you constantly thinking about things that happened today, yesterday or last week? Are you fixated on planning for the future – preparing for a day when things will miraculously be “better”?

If you’re like most people, even as you read this, you’re only half concentrating – your mind is running in a million different directions: thinking of the groceries you need to pick up, the errands that need to be run, the things you need to do over the weekend. We get so wrapped up in these thoughts that we rarely give ourselves time to be in the moment – to simply exist. Eventually, we feel run down, stressed out.

Some signs that stress is affecting your body include headaches, forgetfulness, lack of energy, lack of focus, poor self-esteem, short temper, back pain, upset stomach, general aches and pains.  According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, 85-90% of all illness and disease is caused by stress. Health problems that are often stress related include: depression, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, acne, and menstrual problems.

So, what can we do about it?

It may sound simple, but the key to health lies in living in the moment – being “mindful.” This is not a cop-out or an excuse for self-indulgent or childish behavior, actually it’s quite the opposite.

Mindfulness is the practice of being more fully aware of the present moment, without judgment, rather than dwelling in the past or projecting into the future.  The idea of mindfulness is ancient, with origins in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism.  However, it is important to note that there are no necessary religious components – anyone with any beliefs can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness.

Princeton Center for Yoga &Health offers two amazing 8-week programs beginning this September: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, that teach you techniques in mindfulness and stress management to help you feel less overwhelmed by life.  We also introduce students to a few mindful yoga poses, “meditation in motion,” that are suitable for all body types and fitness levels.

Here are some of the concepts that I try to convey to students who attend our mindfulness programs:

“Thoughts are not facts”

We all experience something yogis call “monkey-mind” – a mind that is jumping from limb to limb, thought to thought, creating a lot of background noise. We believe this constructive – and when we are calm and focused it can be – but most of our thinking is habitual. And we come to identify ourselves with these thoughts. We are not our thoughts, however – there is so much more to be discovered.

Mindfulness and Meditation go hand-in-hand

You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed and eyes closed to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment and quieting your inner dialogue. Even as little as 5 to 10 minutes clearing the mind and settling into our breath calms our sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response) and activates our parasympathetic nervous system, our bodies’ natural healing energy.  Just bring all of your attention to the breath going in and out.  You will be present in this very moment and all those other stresses fall away.

Move from “doing” mode to “being”

Many of us define ourselves based on what we do or have. And what we can’t do or can’t have becomes a source of stress, frustration or low self-esteem. But when our minds are at rest, we experience who we truly are: compassionate, patient, tenacious, lively, and vital. These are just a few examples of “being” – each individual is unique. It is from “being” that we manifest our real power in the world.

We will always have difficult moments in our lives – but with mindfulness techniques, we can better assess a stressful situation and face it. Instead of denying or pushing away difficulty, you have the strength to tolerate difficult moments – and accept them. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘Suffering is not wanting things to be as they are.”

The bottom line is learning to live life in its fullness. So, join us this September (2011) and take the first steps to a healthier, stress-free self!