By Hara Estroff Marano, published on April 1, 2003 - last reviewed on November 22, 2010
No doubt about it. We are living in troubled and troubling times. The economy feels remarkably uncertain. It's not just a highly erratic stock market, but the volatile cost of oil and the incredibly shrinking job market. Without jobs our very identity seems to shrink, to say nothing of our means for enjoying life. And the American consumer economy is threatened even further.
War talk is all around us and scenes of preparation face us on the daily news. Whether you are for or against war, America's stance on Iraq is certainly forcing this nation into unchartered waters and creating new alliances of power in the world. It is bringing on us a torrent of criticism that is at best difficult to endure and undermines whatever security we had in our position in the world. Color-coded alerts may come and go, but we also all now live with the threat of terrorism in our midst.
How do we stay sane in all the midst of all these anxiety-provoking developments?
It takes an effort.
We need to engage in activities that maintain anxiety at manageable levels so that we can continue to function, and so that we can respond rationally if push comes to shove and we face crises in our midst.
The good news is that there are both mental and physical activities we can tap to help us stay level-headed. Most are simple. And since a whole panoply of them have been proven to work, you can look upon them as a menu and select what most appeals to you at any time.
But the important point is this. Staying sane is matter of mental hygiene. Like brushing teeth twice a day and washing hands before eating, there are good mental and physical practices we can and should regularly adopt to protect our heads.
Here are a few worth practicing.
It's remarkable how we can use this basic life function to keep our minds clear in a crisis. There's no excuse not to learn deep breathing, ever. It costs nothing. It requires no special equipment. And you can do it anywhere, any time. Deep breathing has a direct calming effect on the nervous system, so much so that it relaxes the muscles of artery walls and measurably lowers blood pressure.
Here's one very simple way of deep-breathing. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. Breathe in slowly through you nose to the count of five. Hold your breath to the count of seven. Then exhale slowly and audibly through pursed lips to the count of eight. If you put you hands to your abdomen you can feel it rise as you inhale. By the fourth exhale, you should feel noticeably relaxed. By the tenth, renewed.
The evidence on benefits of physical exercise is undeniable. What it does for the mind is distract you from an anxiety-provoking situation, increase your energy level, give you a sense of accomplishment, set in motion a chain of chemical actions in the brain that calm and uplift the mind, and change your perspective to give you a sense that what you do matters. There's more, too, but don't you think that's enough reason to get moving?
The amount of movement needed to make a difference is shockingly little. Virtually anything more than you are doing now. Take a 30-minute walk three times a week. Or a 10-minute walk any time you feel anxious or overwhelmed. Sure you can go for a rugged hike, but strenuous activity isn't required for getting the benefits of exercise.
Keeping the company of others.
We are such fundamentally social creatures that our bodies are calmed by the presence of others (unless of course, they are carrying spears or grenades). Being with others allows us to share our fears and reduce their burden. It enhances our perspective, so that we see new solutions to problems. It, too, enhances our minds chemically, and renews our spirit.
Music is probably the most direct route to changing your state of mind. Music can uplift you, sadden you, put you in the mood for romance, pump you up, or calm you down. Studies show that the right music opens the mind to learning, too, and makes us smarter. If you're shooting to improve overall well-being, nothing does it better than Mozart. But make a tape of some of your favorite uplifting/calming music, and play it whenever the going gets rough.