You're up to your ears in commitments and you just can't step away from any of them, yet you're so stressed out you can barely see straight. You know meditation is probably great, but you're just not motivated to try it. Here are some meditation-free suggestions for getting yourself off the cortisol train.
1. Stop drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
Everyone knows coffee wakes you up, but have you ever though about what's actually happening in your body that gives you the "wake up!" call? Stress hormones! That's right, coffee causes a surge of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in your body, which turns on your body's sympathetic ("fight or flight") nervous system. Now, I'm not going to tell you this is always a bad thing; however, if you are dealing with a stress overload, the last thing you want to do is surge your stress hormones before you've had a meal.
Ever notice how coffee dulls your appetite? That's because your body really doesn't want to eat or digest in sympathetic mode. It wants to run from the man-eating tiger. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to not just eat but SAVOR a nutrient-dense breakfast. You can't savor in stress mode, so you end up stressed out with poor digestion to boot. Not a good situation!
Stress lowering prescription: While you prepare and sit down to eat your breakfast, focus on taking deep breaths. Create a calm space for eating, and save any caffeinated drinks for after you've eaten. (If you habitually run out of the house without eating and guzzle a thermos of coffee on your way to work, you may want to have a heart to heart with yourself about how well that habit is serving you.)
2. Learn to breathe.
This is another skill everyone knows about but few people practice. Many of us are shallow breathers and we don't realize how profoundly this habit affects us. Diaphragmatic breathing (which is using the diaphragm to fill the lungs with air) elicits a relaxation response—the opposite of the sympathetic/stress response we talked about in #1. The internet abounds with breathing exercises you can do FOR FREE!!! anywhere and anytime.
Stress lowering prescription: Practice a deep breathing technique for five minutes, twice a day. Notice the feeling of relaxation that spreads through your body as you breathe. Advanced step: Practice deep breathing any time you feel anxious.
Very advanced step: Experiment with using deep breathing to replace your go-to stress numbing chemicals (alcohol, sugar, other drugs).
3. Do nothing.
Raise your hand if you often find yourself with too much time on your hands. Mmm hmm, that's what I thought. Back when I started my first career as a technical writer, I learned that the best way to lay out a set of instructions was to leave a lot of white space around the text. This helps the reader focus and therefore understand the message more easily. Have you ever opened a set of instructions to find a bunch of tiny print all crammed together and decided you'd rather figure it out on your own than read through that gobbledygook?
News flash: Our brains also need white space. When we cram our day full of activities, we don't get the free time our brains need to help us distinguish between what's really important and what's just gobbledygook. A sure sign you're overdoing it is that when you try to relax, your brain keeps running on all cylinders, planning, worrying, strategizing, angst-ing. It's no coincidence that solutions to vexing problems often come while you're in the shower or during some other time when you've "zoned out." You know what happened, right? You allowed empty space! Creativity requires empty space.
Stress lowering prescription: Every day, set aside a few minutes to do nothing. This is not a meditation, so don't try to direct your thoughts. Sit, stand, or lie down in a comfortable position away from distractions and simply BE. Set an alarm if you need to. Try to start with five minutes at a time. Keep a notebook nearby to write down any intriguing thoughts (or solutions!) that bubble up while you are being. If you find it impossible to stop worrying during your being time, take a pause and write down all your worries in your notebook. Then try again.
Note: If you feel resistance to #3 in the form of "But I don't have time to do nothing!" I would like to gently challenge you to reassess the way you're using your time. Very, very few people don't have an extra five minutes a day. And yes, I understand that parents, especially parents of little ones, are chronically short on alone time. Yet, if you are honest with yourself, you will usually find that you actually DO have five minutes a day to spend on yourself.