There is a lot of stress in the world and abundant reasons to feel it. Whether you’re dealing with work issues, personal stuff, money, fitness, or anything else, there will always be a lot swirling in your mind. Everybody wants to find a way to calm things down and find a little zen now and then. We’re not talking about the formal Buddhist school of zen right now. Instead, we’re referring to general peace of mind. If you’re more interested in real zen, you can find better zen masters to help you with that journey. If you’re looking for a little more mental relaxation, we have some tips that will help.
Take a deep breath
No, really. A deep breath has surprising biomechanical effects on the systems in your body that manage stress. A single deep breath can make a world of difference. Several deep breaths are even better. The more hectic things feel, the more effective this technique is. The University of Michigan has a whole thing about it.
Here’s how it works. A deep breath forces you to slow down in a physical sense. It also fills your lungs with oxygen, which allows you to catch up if you’re a little low. The small but meaningful oxygen dump allows your heart to slow down a little too. These minor shifts proliferate through your body and can even have an impact on hormone regulation. All of the chemical stuff in your body related to stress, anxiety, pressure and everything else loses a little of its edge from every deep breath you take.
Now, let’s set some expectations. A single deep breath won’t magically cure chronic anxiety. It’s not a perfect solution to all things. That said, taking deliberate deep breaths helps a little, and it can slow you down just enough to move into other methods that help you chill your mind.
You probably assumed that meditation would be on this list, and there's a reason for that. Meditation is a technique that is specifically used to help people access deliberate states of mind and exercise more control over their general biomechanics. That’s a lot of fancy words, but we can oversimplify meditation and it will make sense.
Meditation is the act of stopping everything and focusing on breathing and clearing your mind for a few minutes or more. As you focus on breathing, you can quiet your mind and pay less attention to all of the external stressors that might otherwise invade your mental space. With a little practice, meditation can work as a bit of a mental and physical reset. You can even use it to explore feelings and thoughts and get into some pretty deep stuff. But, on the surface, sciency level, it’s sustained focused breathing.
What’s more is that you can pair meditation with other stress relievers. You can meditate through the practice of yoga. You can do deliberate muscle relaxation while you meditate. There are really no limits to how you can practice and apply meditation once you have a feel for it.
Try a relaxing activity
Abandoning deliberate breathing, you can devote time to an activity that helps you de-stress. For some, it’s a long warm shower or a hot bath. For others, it might be mild physical activity that you don’t have to think about. It can be reading (for pleasure), writing, guided imagery, yoga, stretching, taking a walk, practicing an art form . . . You can see how this is open-ended.
There are a couple of simple rules to keep in mind when you explore relaxing activities. First, the activity is about relaxation more than enjoyment. Even if you love to read, spending an hour on an intense thriller or horror book probably won’t help you get into a zen groove. You want to read something that promotes a sense of peace, and it should be easy reading.
Games are another example. If you have a relaxing game, that’s great. If you have a game that pisses you off every time you lose, it’s off-limits for this activity. You get the idea.
The other rule is that it shouldn’t be physically strenuous. Exercise has its place, and it can absolutely help you find your zen, but that’s a different idea that we’ll cover in a moment. A relaxing activity can be physical, but it shouldn’t leave you gasping for air or sweating buckets. Those activities introduce levels of physical stress that limit what you can get out of your relaxing practices.
Despite everything we just said, exercise can be used to help you find your zen. Some people have a workout that allows their mind to go free, and it really helps them get rid of some stress. Other people push through stress with a workout, and that’s also effective.
If you aren’t one of those types, exercise will still help with your zen, but it’s indirect. That’s what we’re going to focus on here.
This is all about getting the endorphins pumping. You have to be your own guide with exercise for peace of mind. Ideally, you can break a sweat doing something that is rote and doesn’t require you to learn new moves or techniques. Using an exercise bike or jogging are probably the most obvious examples. Rowing, swimming and a whole host of other exercises all work great too.
The idea is to get lost in the exercise. You can really get after it if it feels good. You can go for as long or short as you need. When you get your heart rate up and those endorphins flowing, you can break out of a slump. You can quiet your mind. If nothing else, you can exhaust yourself into a good sleep when you come down from the workout. Exercise is really one of the best things for your brain, and that will help you chill your mind. The workout might not leave your mind feeling chill, but regular exercise will help your brain deal with the world, and that makes your zen attempts more successful.
Focus on chemistry
The science of brain chemistry can’t answer everything, but it can definitely help you grasp your zen. There are natural and medicinal approaches, and they often intersect.
Let’s start with nature. Improving your brain chemistry is mostly a matter of three things. You need good, regular exercise (you can refer to the above section for that). You need a good diet and regular sleep.
If there is something missing from your diet, try to make consistent changes. You don’t have to eat perfectly every day, but every healthy meal is progress and will help your zen. If you’re paying attention to how your mind feels when you eat a certain way, it will both guide and motivate your efforts.
Also, cutting one bad snack or meal a day helps a lot. It’s not about making forever changes. Instead, embrace the idea of having better zen today. Tomorrow is not your concern. That’s your future self’s problem.
While you’re thinking about diet, sleep is obviously paramount. If you’re struggling with consistent, good sleep, there is not always a quick fix. But, the first two parts of your zen chemistry will help with sleep struggles. Everything else on this list can also help you sleep better. Zen and sleep go hand-in-hand.
When natural methods come up short, you can ask a health professional. Doctors work on this problem on a regular basis, and there are entire specialties dedicated to helping you with your state of mind. Let them share their knowledge and methods with you. Give it a little time, and you’ll find something that works. Once you can find some zen, you’ve found the cornerstone of your positive feedback loop. A little zen helps a lot with sleep, which helps with having energy for exercise and all of the other stuff. You see how this goes.
Finding your zen isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. It’s a practice, and you don’t have to be perfect at it. You don’t even have to be a master. As long as you continue the pursuit, you’ll see mental health benefits, and that’s the real goal.