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if you do nothing else – meditate

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A few years ago, I was gently nudged onto a course through Perth Meditation Centre called ‘The 5 Minute Meditator’, by my book club buddies. You may have read one of my earlier posts, I thought swimming reduced your stress levels . At the time, I was unknowingly in the midst of a stress crisis, and it took this nudge from my friends to set me on my meditation path, to life as it is now.

The meditation technique was simple. Relaxation came within about a minute, through 3 deep and completely mindful breaths. I found myself using it constantly. I needed to use it constantly! As the noise levels in the back of the car peaked, I would slip into meditation mode. The boys would notice a shift in my breathing and ask what I was doing. I was honest. “I’m meditating so that I don’t get upset by you arguing,” or “I’m feeling really stressed right now, and this helps calm me down,” I would say. Then there were the moments where one toddler, occasionally two, would completely lose the plot over the way I’d cut up a piece of food, or something equally as devastating. I would shift my breathing into the deep mindful mode I’d learnt. And it worked! But with little kids, I found that I was almost always emotionally simmering, never far from tipping into stress mode. My quick methods were keeping me sane, but not really solving the deeper issue of my almost permanently raised cortisol levels.

It was also quite difficult for me to accept my reality at that moment. I had to acknowledge that I was a complete stress ball…and I’d never been that person. The image I had of myself was of a chilled out human who could handle pretty much anything. So it took me quite a while to acknowledge that I needed to do more. I essentially had to make the decision to create a daily meditation habit which would become a permanent part of me. It took another few years to really commit. I practiced randomly for a few days here and there when I remembered, or when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed. Then I started putting in place a whole range of other measures to reduce my stress levels, and meditation became a feature most days. I began to notice the impact it had on me, and realised it was the one thing I couldn’t do without. I could go a week or two without doing yoga and I would be fine, but not so with the meditation. It completely shifts how I feel internally. I do feel like a chilled out human a lot of the time now, and I know I can handle most things.

I had a drink with a really good friend the other night who has a super busy life. We had a very practical discussion about how she could factor some stress reducing stuff into her already jammed schedule. I know so many women just like her. So much going on, and this burnt out, can’t budge from the couch feeling every night. And then they can’t sleep very well once they do go to bed. As Sara Gottfreid author of The Hormone Cure calls it ‘tired but wired’. I suggested to my friend that if she could fit in just ONE thing, it should be meditation. We talked about her running an Epsom Salts bath a few times a week, and doing a short 15 minute guided meditation through the Chopra Centre for Meditation while she was bathing. She said it was do-able, not too overwhelming, and I know that once she starts, she will embrace the peace of the meditation bath. What’s not to like?

I sense that in this fast paced world, where we worry so much about toxins in our food and environment, that stress is quite possibly the most toxic thing to our inner and outer health. It’s seems very strange to me, because the solutions to the problem inevitably involve practices which are deeply satisfying and pleasurable. It’s just really hard to find the solution when you’re in the midst of the chaos.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/2919966075/
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finding balance

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One of the greatest motivations for slow living is the dream of having a less stressful life. Many people associate stress with being busy, and that can be true, but isn’t always the case. More often stress reflects the chaos within us which needs attention. If your mind is calm then a busy day is less likely to cause panic or anxiety. A stressful experience at work is less likely to impact upon you, and screaming children or an encounter with an angry person is less likely to tip you over the edge. Unfortunately when you are immersed in stress, it’s very difficult to see the woods for the trees.

In mid 2013 I decided to take extended leave from my job. I had been working one 12 hour night shift a week, packing kids off to family or friends so that I could go to work, and then cramming in a few hours sleep the next morning before leaping back into the chaos of my life. I was often grumpy and short tempered, and the cumulative effects of the night shifts were taking their toll. I realised that my stress levels were raised almost all the time, and that I needed to do something to restore my inner peace.

I bought a book called The Hormone Cure by Dr Sara Gottfried. I’d heard Sara speak online and her methods really resonated with me. I immediately started using them to reduce my cortisol levels (which were confirmed as super high by the quiz at the start of the book – like I didn’t already know!). Cortisol is the hormone we need to get us out of trouble when we are in stressful or dangerous situations. It’s very useful, and at normal levels in the body it does have some positive effects, particularly on your immune system. However when your cortisol levels remain consistently elevated, it means that the chemical feedback loop which moves you between a stressed state, and a relaxed state no longer works very effectively. It’s like someone has hit the fast forward button and you can’t find the pause. Your stress levels become chronic. I would get angry about something the kids did or didn’t do, and I couldn’t come back down again for ages. I felt terrible. Chronic stress also impacts on your  immune system, by seriously depleting it. It also affects the stability of all your other hormones. Before you know it, it’s more than your stress levels which are out of whack.

So I wrote a huge list of cortisol reducing strategies on a blackboard in my kitchen. Then I worked really hard to do as many of them as possible, as often as I could. It became my absolute priority. I meditated almost every morning for 15 minutes before the kids woke up. I started doing online yoga classes in my lounge room, often involving the kids, which was very sweet. I had weekly acupuncture (at Endeavour College in East Perth, which gives huge discounts on natural therapies done by final year students), I stood on my head a lot, hugged a lot, I walked with girlfriends, did alternate nasal breathing, laughed a lot, just stopped a lot, stopped drinking coffee and alcohol, breathed…and after about 3 months I noticed a dramatic change within. And the best part of all, is that all of these stress reducing habits have become permanent habits and it feels great.

Shared at With Some Grace, 18th July 2014 for FYBF