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Can’t Meditate? Other Proven Ways To Reduce Stress

Shannon Harvey

There’s no doubt that meditation is the cool thing to do at the moment. TIME Magazine has hailed the “Mindful Revolution,” Google has an in-house mindfulness program, and lists of "outrageously successful" people who meditate regularly make the rounds on my social media feed, including Huffington Post and Thrive Global founder Arianna Huffington who champions its use in the workplace for boosting productivity and the corporate bottom line.

There’s also increased interest in mindfulness in scientific circles. Everything from mindfulness for binge-eating, to mindfulness for post traumatic stress is being put to the test and the results are promising. Researchers from top academic institutions are demonstrating that it can enhance your immune system, help you cope with chronic illness, and even change your brain structure to help with anxiety, focus, and attention.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m definitely on this bandwagon. (Read my piece on How To Meditate for more.) If you’ve seen my film The Connection, you’ll know that there is a compelling case for the use of evidence-based mind-body medicine in helping to combat the mental and physical chronic disease epidemic. I attribute mindfulness and meditation to playing a significant role in my recovery from being the former stressed-out-arthritis-riddled version of myself that is almost unrecognisable when I look into the mirror and see the mostly well, mostly balanced, and mostly content person that I am today.

But having said all of that, I don’t ever claim that mindfulness is the one thing that turned my life around. And I don’t ever claim that meditation is the one thing that will cure all your stress and health worries too. Review papers (where researchers analyse and summarise the best available evidence on specific subjects) regularly make conclusions along the lines of “we need more high-quality research before we can conclude anything meaningful.” I strongly suspect that as more data comes in, the catch-all conclusion for meditation will be that it’s beneficial some people, possibly many people, but not all.

So, what if you’ve given it your best shot? What if you’ve downloaded an app, you’ve taken a course, or watched a TED Talk by the latest meditation expert and, for whatever reason, you just can’t do it? The good news for non-meditators is that science has validated the effectiveness of many other ways to reduce stress. Listening to music, having a massage, writing in a journal, immersing yourself in art, hugging, laughing, exercising, or even drinking tea and chewing gum are all stress relievers.

Some of my favourite research on stress reduction looks at the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, a term coined in 1982 that translates in English to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” In a country that also coined the term Karoshi (death by overwork), the practice of walking in the forest is becoming increasingly popular. Forest bathing has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 12.4 percent. Forest bathers also report better moods and lower anxiety. These health benefits have been shown to last as long as 30 days after the participants returned to their urban lives. As I wrote in my blog post Why Does Getting Outside Feel So Good?, something magic happens when you slow down, stop the busywork and take time out in natural surroundings.  

While the activities I’ve mentioned may not shrink your brain's stress centre in the same way that meditation has been shown to do, it’s likely they will all help reduce your feelings of stress.

I realise you may be reading all this with one eyebrow lifted, thinking, “Well duh. Do you honestly think that I’ve never thought of having a massage or going for a walk when I’m stressed?” And you’re right of course. All of this is common sense. We don’t need a randomly controlled scientific experiment to tell us that having a laugh is going to make us feel better. But here’s the thing – many of us don’t follow through and actually do the things we know will help. Instead we shop, drink alcohol, play video games, gamble, surf the Internet, or turn to binge-worthy TV. You probably won’t be surprised to know that a survey done by the American Psychological Association found that none of these things are particularly effective at relieving stress.

My point here is this – if you’re anything like I used to be and you need to reduce the chronic stress in your life, do something, anything, to actively reduce your stress every single day, without compromise. Or, as many of the wise stress reduction experts I’ve interviewed in recent years often say– take the time to breathe as if your life depends on it.

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