Wise teachers from many spiritual traditions tell us that while we don't always have control over how life unfolds, we do have control over how we manage it. We are in charge of the spirit with which we face our life and the attitude with which we live it.
In other words, we don't always have a choice about the cards we are dealt in this life, but we do have a choice about how we play them.
Remembering this isn't always easy, especially when we are facing difficulty and feeling stressed. Fortunately, wise teachers from many different traditions have cultivated a range of practices and strategies that can help us manage our lives as gracefully and as happily as possible.
Some of these practices are simple and can be done any time and any place. My favorite on-the-spot and in-the-moment stress management strategies - ones that can be practiced in an office, in a car, at the doctor's office, or even walking down the street - follow.
When we are stressed, we tend to hold the breath or half-breathe, panting like a dog in a fast and shallow manner. My first survival strategy when I'm facing stress is to exhale. Not only does this help relax the body, but it invites the nervous system to settle into a more restful state.
It's simple. Follow the breath for a few rounds. When you're ready, simply lengthen an exhalation a little more than usual. When you think you've reached the end of your out-breath, exhale just a little bit more. Imagine that you have just one last candle on your birthday cake that you're trying to extinguish. At the end of this one out-breath, let go of all control over the breath, inhaling and exhaling freely and naturally for three or four easy breaths.
After a few moments, again consciously lengthen a single exhalation. Sometimes it helps to purse the lips as you exhale fully, as if you were breathing out through a straw. Sometimes it even helps to accompany the out-breath with a long sigh.
Repeat this pattern - breathing naturally and freely for several breaths, and then consciously lengthening a single exhalation - for as long as you like. If it helps, keep doing it. When in doubt, breathe out!
2. Practice Mindfulness
Much of the anxiety we create in our lives is generated by thoughts about the past or future. Even as our minds are spinning out in fear and stress, the very moment before us is usually manageable, and is often even beautiful. Future-thinking and past-spinning deny us the opportunity to experience the life and love right before our very eyes.
Life is lived in moments. And at the very least, each present moment often offers the opportunity to live fully and to express our love. The trick is to keep the mind in the present moment - the only place life can be truly lived. This is what mindfulness is all about.
When you feel your mind spinning out of control, spend a few moments focusing completely on the experience of the present. Notice the sounds around you, the colors you see, the quality of the breath, the feelings in your body. Be with the moment, with as much openness and ease as possible.
When you catch your mind spinning into the future or reeling into the past, gently lure it back to raw ingredients of the present. If you need help getting started with mindfulness, finish this sentence: "Right now, in the here-and-now, I am aware of..."
The more you can embrace each passing moment with tenderness and openness - even if you don't particularly like the moment - the less stress your body will carry. And quite possibly, your calm and abiding mindfulness will help calm and center those around you, too.
3. Move Gently
As a longtime student and teacher of yoga, I am keenly aware of how deeply we hold our emotions in our bodies. I am also convinced that by consciously relaxing and mindfully moving the body, we can discharge much of the stress we carry, so we are better able to move and breathe in more supportive and tender ways.
There are lots of ways to consciously move the body that release bound-up energy and keep the body strong. Try yoga, running, swimming, tai chi, qigong, or even walking down the road and back.
These aren't exactly do-anywhere, on-the-spot practices, though. Fortunately, it is still possible to relax through movement when you're sitting at a computer, waiting at the doctor's office, standing in line at the grocery or even lying in bed. It is possible in just about any situation to quietly do a gentle twist, or to arch and round the back, to nestle the chin toward the chest, or to roll the shoulders forward, up, back and down. These gentle moments can help relax the body, free the breath and settle you into the moment.
You can even move "secretly" by practicing progressive relaxation. Draw your attention to a specific part of the body, tense the muscles in that area for a few seconds, and then release as much as you possibly can. Repeat this a few times and then move on to another part of the body.
You might move to the places in the body where you feel the most tension. Or you could start at the bottom of the body and work your way to the top. You could draw your attention to the feet, scrunching up the toes and flexing the ankles for a breath or two, and then softening them completely. And then tense and relax the lower legs, the upper legs, the hips, the belly, the shoulders, the hands, the arms, the neck, the jaw and the face.
4. Practice Love
Each moment, no matter how anxious, offers us the opportunity to practice love. We can do this in obvious ways, like telling people how much we care for them, for example, or helping them in some tangible way.
We can also do this quietly, secretly, through loving-kindness practice. All it requires is that we silently offer wishes of goodwill and happiness to those around us. Sometimes we offer this unconditional friendliness toward one specific loved one. Sometimes we offer this tenderness toward ourselves. Sometimes we send out wishes for love and peace to everyone, everywhere.
Some spiritual traditions offer specific words or phrases that can help this. Buddhist meditators, for example, sometimes use some variation of the following words: "May we be filled with loving-kindness. May we be well. May we be peaceful and at ease. May we be happy."
When my mind is on the verge of meltdown - and when all of the strategies I've already offered here fail me - I remember to "rest the fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness," as meditation teachers sometimes suggest. I send wishes of love and tenderness to myself, a creature doing her best to live and love in happiness and light. This never fails to soften me.
From there, I often offer silent wishes for love and kindness toward someone in my life who may be suffering. Usually I begin with the traditional loving-kindness phrases, but then often I add my own, tailoring my words to the person I am holding in my heart. "May you be safe. May you be strong. May you know how deeply you are loved. May you be happy. May you know peace. May you shine."
Depending on the moment, I may offer up my well-wishing to people around me - family members, friends, even strangers near and far. And then, I cut right to the chase, offering my sincere wishes for happiness and peace to everyone, everywhere.
I like this practice of silently spreading kindness, because it gives me something positive and helpful to do, especially when the moment feels helpless. I like it because it doesn't offer false promises or pretend that things are different from the way they are, but still it allows us express our heartfelt kindness and care. And most of all, it reminds us that even when all else fails, even when we are stressed, there is always love.