By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.
We Americans are a worried bunch. News reports of plummeting financial markets, high unemployment, oil slicks and other disasters give us ample concern for the future. As a family therapist I see children as young as 10 worried about global warming, crime and the affordability of college. At 10 that’s a heavy load to bear. A recent study found that parents grossly underestimate the stress their kids feel. Children report trouble sleeping, headaches and other symptoms of stress, yet their parents seem unaware, (perhaps due to their own stress levels).
Stress levels in adults soared, with 42 percent saying their stress worsened in the past year. A survey of eight metropolitan cities, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C. found that Denver fared the worst. More than 75 percent reported work and money are major sources of stress. People feel trapped due to lay-offs, pay cuts, heavier work loads and health insurance concerns. When you feel a lack of control over your own life, the body can take a hit. Some symptoms of stress include:
- sleep problems
- gastro-intestinal disturbances
- substance abuse
- heart disease
If you feel like anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac, then you’re too stressed (thank you George Carlin for that one). If you drive to work, get out, lock the car and discover your coffee mug on the roof of your car, then you’re too stressed. If your friend asks you “how are the kids?” and you reply “what kids?” then you’re too stressed. You might assume you will feel less tense if you can change some circumstance of your life. You expect to feel relieved if you:
- Can get a job.
- Can save money.
- See the economy improve.
- Get health coverage.
- Have more time to relax.
Unfortunately the world does not rotate according to our personal needs. It’s healthy to learn to generate a feeling of calm within yourself, no matter what happens outside of your sphere of influence. You might think “it’s impossible to feel calm with so many stress0rs in my life.” Amazingly, you can learn to produce a feeling of calm within yourself with little effort in a few minutes. I’ll share one simple technique with you. This comes from Buddhist monk and peace advocate, Thich Nhat Hanh (tik not hahn). It’s called Wonderful Moment.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I notice that my in-breath has become deeper.
Breathing out, I notice that my out-breath has become slower.
Breathing in, I calm myself.
Breathing out, I feel at ease.
Breathing in, I smile.
Breathing out, I release.
Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I feel it is a wonderful moment.
This simple brief exercise in mindfulness carries within it some serious scientific credibility. First it focuses our attention on our breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Breathing is primary nourishment for the mind and body. Next, we think of the words deep and slow. When we breathe deeply we oxygenate our blood, providing needed fuel to help the brain process more efficiently and effectively. When we think of slow we reduce the speed of our racing thoughts that drive worry. Next we focus on the words calm and ease. We focus our attention on the possibility that in this moment we can feel calm and ease. This sends a message from the brain to the body to relax, reduce the blood pressure and restrictions creating tension in the body. The word smile triggers the face to smile, releasing natural opiates that reduce pain and increase well-being. The word release sends the message to let go of the tension the body holds onto like a gripping fist. With each breath, release tension and worry. The words present moment remind us that life only truly exists for us in this present moment. To feel fully alive we must return to the immediate moment. Finally, the words wonderful moment alert us to the promise of wonder and joy in every instant. Easy and effortless.
In the words of the great Carole King and Gerry Goffin in their song Up on the Roof:
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just to much for me to face.
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space.
The great thing about the Wonderful Moment exercise is you don’t even have to climb any stairs to let those cares drift into space. Breathing in, Breathing out, deep, slow, calm, ease, smile, release, present moment, wonderful moment.