Drop-kick your anxiety in the new year with these mind-clearing tricks. They may sound simple, but they have the power to change everything.
Give your brain a break
Clear your mind. Be here now. Find your zen. These mantras surround us all the time—and, as experts tell us, there’s good reason for it. “Our minds are designed to wander. That’s why we’re so creative, so productive,” says Jennifer Hughes, PhD, a psychologist with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and UT Physicians in Houston. “But when your mind is cluttered, it’s like we’re time traveling, we’re going back to the past or thinking about the future, and these thoughts can make it hard to function, be in the present moment, and enjoy the things that are in front of us.” Feeling a little lacking in the zen category? No worries. We asked psychologists and mindfulness experts to share their favorite free-your-mind tricks to get you in the right mindset for the new year. And for an extra boost of calming energy when you really need it, check out these 5-second strategies for shutting down stress ASAP.
Expand your notion of meditation
Before any discussion of meditation begins, it’s important to broaden your understanding of what the M-word actually entails. “You don’t have to be sitting in a lotus position to meditate. You can create a meditative exercise in so many of your day-to-day activities,” says anxiety coach Julian Brass, author of Own Your Anxiety. “Meditation is simply about disconnecting from your surroundings and reconnecting with yourself. The key ingredient is that you’re conscious of your breath, slowing it down so you’re calming your nervous system.” To find a meditation that works for you, Hughes suggests the app Insight Timer, which has more than 30,000 free guided meditations. Don’t miss 24 more ways you can relax that don’t cost a cent.
Write it down
Think fast: When was the last time you kept a diary? Turns out, writing down your thoughts is a proven (and simple!) mind-clearing technique. “Journaling helps you analyze and organize your thoughts, which is a great way to relax your mind,” says Sanam Hafeez, PhD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City. “Research suggests that expressive writing eliminates intrusive thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements may, in turn, free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities, including the ability to manage stress more effectively.” For a similar way to improve your overall outlook on life, create a gratitude journal.
We do it all the time, of course, but we don’t often give breathing much thought or effort. But by purposefully slowing down your breath, you give your brain an instant calming cue, says Hughes. She recommends breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of eight. “The longer exhale engages the calming centers of your body,” she explains. “Do it five times anytime during the day to help you calm down and be in the present moment.” You can also try one of these 12 breathing exercises designed to help you relax in minutes.
Clean your room
What’s the first thing you see in the morning? A cluttered, messy bedroom can send your mind down a stress spiral as soon as you wake up. That’s why Hafeez swears by one simple act when you first wake up: making your bed. “Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity and a greater sense of well-being,” she says. “It helps you face the day with a feeling of accomplishment, even before you brush your teeth.” Cleaning in and of itself can be a meditative experience, adds Brass. Cleaning and decluttering are actually two of the 13 tiny changes that will make your home instantly happier.
There’s a reason that yoga is so often associated with a meditative mindset, says Hughes. “Yoga is inherently a meditation because you’re pairing your breath with your movement, which creates a repetition that has a meditative effect,” she explains. Discover the top signs your body is crying out for some ohmmm.
Bump up your exercise intensity
As with yoga, any exercise that entails a repetitive motion—swimming, cycling, walking, running—naturally has meditative benefits. And according to Brass, when you bump up your intensity, you get a twofer. “I swear by movement as a meditation,” he says. “High-intensity exercise is really important because we can get rid of that anxious energy and get more of the good energy at the same time.” Plus, studies show that working out just one hour a week decreases your risk of depression.
Practice a mantra
Yoga classes often start and end with a chanting exercise designed to get you into the meditative mind-set. “It’s like praying with a rosary, where that repetition brings about a calming effect,” explains Brass. Focusing on a particular phrase for a couple of minutes while you’re walking (say, for a block) is a simple way to help calm your mind. Check out these 14 magic phrases to instantly calm your anxiety.
With cell phones practically Velcroed to our bodies these days, we’ve become experts at multitasking—or so we think. It’s debatable how well we’re performing each of those tasks when we’re jumping from one thing to another, and it can also cost us peace of mind. “Humans are not multitaskers by nature,” says Hafeez. “Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface, but studies have shown that multitasking actually reduces productivity and fills your mind with too much activity. Instead, go down your list of priorities and focus on one task at a time to avoid mental overload.”
Learn the difference between mindfulness and meditation
“Just remember that there’s a difference between mindfulness and meditation,” says Brass. “I can do the dishes mindfully, where I’m focusing on the task at hand, which can bring about a calming, meditative effect. But when we’re talking about meditation in particular, we’re really focusing only on our breath and staying there, not letting the mind wander.” Whatever gets you into your state of flow, though, stick with it. “It’s important to respect and honor what works for you,” he says. Pick a favorite mindfulness technique to start your day tomorrow.