Self-Care Meditations, Exercises, and Techniques
Breathing is a powerful tool for influencing the nervous system. Even though we usually do not pay attention to our breath, and it unfolds automatically, we can consciously choose to breathe a certain way which will either calm or excite the nervous system. Below are 2 simple breathing exercises, that can be easily learned and should be practiced most of our lives. The first one, diaphragmatic breathing, is the same breath we use when we run, walk fast or sing, or play a musical instrument. Expand
- Sit calmly and comfortably or lie down flat. Breathe through your nose. Exhale to mark the start of this practice. Then begin to inhale from the diaphragm. You can tell you are breathing from this primary breathing muscle by the slow rising of your abdomen. Let your belly expand like a balloon. Inhale only to a comfortable point. Do not try to fill your lungs to their maximum. Once you have inhaled enough, begin exhaling. Slowly, almost passively, let all the air leave your lungs. The abdomen sinks back down, the chest falls. When almost all the air has left your lungs, begin again.
- Try this for about 10 Minutes. (If your abdomen does not expand on the inhale, it most likely means you are breathing through your chest. You can try to relearn diaphragmatic breathing by lying on your bed, placing a paperback book on your belly and then trying to lift up the book when you inhale, and have it sink back down when you exhale)
Use the same diaphragmatic breath described above. But now, begin counting as you inhale, for example: 1 – 2 – 3 and as you exhale: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5. How far you count up and down is of no importance, the crucial thing is to lengthen the exhale, which increases parasympathetic tone (relaxation nervous system) in the body
Four Awesome Acronyms for Anxiety Relief
When it comes to psychology, less can be more mindful.
Linda Esposito - Psychology Today
March 30, 2017
There’s a time and a place for deep psychological work to effect change. And sometimes, change comes by way of an inspirational quote, practicing slow, deep breaths, or receiving encouragement from a loved one.
The beauty of psychology is often found in simplicity. The following four acronyms can be helpful when you need a mental health tuneup.
R. A. I. N
S. E. L. F
T. H. I. N. K
R. E. L. A. X.
Below are scripts for a few different meditative exercises, that are ideal for beginning practitioners. Many people who practice them, as well as a number of studies report benefits of these exercises for physical and mental well being. Beyond the ones listed below are many time honored practices that go beyond the scope of this webpage. Expand
How to Establish a Meditation Practice
Form the intention that you want to practice regularly. Where will you practice? What time of day is most feasible? Ideally, dedicate a room or an area in a room to meditation. Whatever space you pick it should be quiet. You may want to build an altar where you place sacred objects, photos of loved ones or objects from nature. Over time it will become a soothing focus for your practice. Place a firm cushion or chair on which to sit. If you choose to establish an alter place your seat in front of it.
In the beginning you may only be able to sit for short periods, 5-20 minutes, before your mind becomes restless. Do not judge, but have patience with yourself, and slowly the time you can be still will grow.
Right posture is very important. If you sit on a chair, place both feet, in socks or barefoot, fully on the ground, about hip width apart. Feel both your buttocks grounded on the chair, with the pelvis tilting forward slightly, so that the spine can assume its natural double-S curve. Place both hands on your knees, and roll the shoulders back to prevent yourself from leaning forward. The back of your skull rests above the back of your buttock; your eyes are either closed, or half open looking at an imaginary point about 4 feet in front of you, without focusing on anything. The tongue is quiet, the tip rests on the back of the upper front teeth. If you are sitting on a cushion, sit in a comfortable cross legged position, and follow the rest of the description for sitting on a chair.
Scan your body and try to release any muscle tension. Before you begin, take 3 slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
Then turn your attention towards the focus you have chosen for your meditation. This can be any number of things such as:
- The breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.
- Other body changes during breathing, e.g. the rise and fall of your chest
- Sounds as they arise from within or outside the body.
- A candle flame, placed about 4 feet in front of you
- A mantra or prayer that has emotional significance for you
Mindfulness Meditation Instruction
- Assume the posture described above.
- Then try to look around you softly without focusing on anything, and slowly close your eyes half way or completely if your mind is more active or distracted.
- Take 3 slow, long breaths and then let your breath assume it’s natural rhythm. Breathe in and out through your nose.
- Rest your attention in the area of your body where the breath is easiest or clearest to attend to. This can be the rising and falling of the abdomen, the movement of the chest, or the sensation of air passing through the nostrils. People often find it helpful to gently, silently label the inhalations and exhalations as “rising” or “falling” or “in” and “out”.
- Your mind will wander and get distracted a thousand times during each meditation. That is the nature of mind. If you catch yourself, off on some tangent, gently and without judgment, return the focus back to the breath. If a strong sensation captures your attention, such as a pain in your body, a noise or smell, silently label it “pain”, “noise”, “smell”. Be mindful of the distraction, attend to it until you can return your focus to the breath. One of many things, mindfulness teaches us, is how experience always changes. It is difficult to focus on one thing even for a second. The purpose of mindfulness is to be witness to this constant always present flow of experience.
- If you can, differentiate between abstract thoughts, concepts, ideas, “fantasy”, and direct experience. Whenever possible, follow the direct experience. Notice also your relationship to your experience. Do you notice aversion, desire, judgment and many other visitors?
- Do not participate in your thoughts and stories, but simply and silently be aware of what is actually occurring in your body and mind.
- As you learn to be present with your experience, calmly and without judgment, a deeper intimacy with yourself and the world will arise. As you cultivate your ability to remain mindful without interfering, judging, avoiding or clinging to direct experience, a world of insight and wisdom have a chance to surface.
- Sit in a very comfortable position or lie down on your couch or bed. For this meditation, it is very important to feel as comfortable as possible at the outset.
- Close your eyes and feel your breath going in and out of your lungs. Try not to interfere with your natural breathing, if it is slow and steady. If it is shallow try lengthening the breath by counting to 4 or 5 as you inhale, and counting to 4or 5 as you exhale.
- Then turn your attention to the sensations from your body. Quickly scan your entire body, similar to when you are doing a body scan.
- With every inhale imagine an endless sea of breath-energy, prana or chi, that becomes brilliant white light as it floats into your lungs, and spreads through your entire body. Feel this breath-energy, or amrita, infuse every cell of your body with healing. Feel it swirl through every blood vessel and organ.
- With every exhale, imagine that you are taking toxins and waste from each cell, and releasing them back to the universe for recycling. Visualize your outgoing breath as a black cloud of smokey substance released into the air.
- Feel that the cells are filled with healing energy in the form of warmth, bliss and joy.
- Imagine waves of healing energy coming from each of your cells, pulsating out into the universe, and combining with similar waves coming from other people. Feel these healing light waves combine to a powerful sea of healing energy, which you can always tap into, and connects you to all others.
- Rest with these feelings for a few minutes. Feel yourself held by the earth and all beings.
- Then slowly open your eyes and come back to the present moment.
Exercise is vital. Our bodies are made to move. Hundreds of studies have shown the benefits of regular exercise for overall health, wellbeing and mood. Exercise is one of the most powerful antidepressants and anti-anxiety treatments.
However, every exercise is only as good as the one you are actually doing. If you enjoy running, run. If you enjoying swimming, yoga, lifting weights by all means swim, do yoga, or lift weights, but if you don't enjoy strenuous exercise don't worry. The latest research shows that long periods of increased heart rate during exercise may not be as important as previously thought.
Walking is a wonderful exercise that may have almost the same benefits as running. In Europe, where gyms are not as popular as in the US, people walk more whether it's a weekend hike or carrying their groceries home from the market. Even cleaning your apartment can be a combination of flexibility training, endurance and strength training.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Techniques
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a simple method of systematic deep muscle relaxation. By going through groups of muscles in turn, tensing them for a few seconds and then very gradually releasing the tension, deeper than normal levels of muscle relaxation can be obtained. It reliably elicits the “relaxation response” and leads to a more general level of emotional and mental calm.
Begin by lying down flat on your back, or reclining in a comfortable chair. Repeat each step below at least twice. A session should take about 20-30 Minutes.
Relax the Legs
- Raise the right leg a few inches from the floor. Arch the foot back and tense the muscles in the leg. Focus on the tension in your leg muscles. Hold the leg up for about 5 seconds, lower it down and relax it for about 20 seconds. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation of the muscles.
- Repeat the same with the left leg.
- Repeat with both legs at once.
- Make a fist with your right hand and bend your right elbow. Focus on the tension in the right forearm. Hold it for at least 5 seconds and relax slowly for 20 seconds. Notice the contrast between tension and looseness.
- Repeat the same with the left arm.
- Repeat the same with both arms.
- Pull both shoulders up towards your ears, tense your neck and shoulders. Hold for 5 seconds, then relax slowly. Notice the contrast between tension and looseness.
- Rise your eyebrows as high as you can. Then slowly relax them, until your forehead is smooth, relaxed and without tension.
- Now squeeze your eyes closed. Then relax them, imagine all wrinkles disappearing.
- Now clench your jaw and bite your teeth together. Then relax slowly until your mouth falls open. (If you like you can add here a piece of a yoga pose, called Lion pose: open your eyes as wide as you can, open your mouth as wide as you can and stick out your tongue as far as possible. This is very relaxing to all facial muscles)
- Focus your attention on your chest. Take a deep breath in, feel your chest and your abdomen expand, hold for 5 seconds and slowly exhale.
- Imagine a wave of relaxation slowly spreading throughout your body, starting from your lungs and spreading outwards to your fingertips and toes
- Let your breathing return to its natural rhythm, but try and breathe through the diaphragm, imagine drawing your breath up from the depth of your abdomen.
- Become aware of your eyes. Allow them to not focus on anything that is in their view. Soften all muscles surrounding the eyes. Let the eyes become completely still, passive and inert.
- Count softly, out loud, from 1 to 5. Repeat, but twice as softly and slowly. Repeat several times, gradually fading your voice until you count silently.
- Do nothing. Become aware of the organs and apparatus of speech, the mouth, tongue, throat, breathing muscles. Let the muscles of speech become completely still, passive and inert.
- Remain completely inert and passive in this position for about 10 Minutes.
- When you are finished, take a deep breath, stretch your arms and slowly begin moving.
Sleep and Sleep Hygiene
A generation ago, people slept 7-8 hours per night on average, now it is 5-6 hours per night. Depression and other mood disorders are clearly tied to normally functioning circadian rhythms. Sleep loss often precedes a depressed or manic episode.
There are many things we can do to improve our sleep, before taking sleep medication. Below is a list of helpful techniques that should be part of a healthy night time ritual.
- The mind and body are not ready to shift away from our over stimulated daytime schedules to sound sleep without transition. Allow at least an hour before bed for calming, quiet routine such as reading, listening to music, non-stimulating TV, meditation, relaxation or a hot bath.
- Set a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
- Use the bed only for sleep and sex. If you cannot fall asleep get up, and sit on the couch with a book, or engage in some other quite calming activity until you feel ready to sleep.
- If you do get up in the middle of the night, keep the lights off, or use a night light. Bright light stimulates the brain to wake up more.
- If you are awake in the middle of the night, practice breathing techniques or the body scan in bed, listen to soothing music or ocean sounds from a sound machine.
- Avoid thinking about problems in the late evening. You are unlikely to solve them overnight, and your mind will be fresher and sharper after a good night’s sleep.
- Drink a lot of room temperature water during the day, dehydration keeps us from sleeping at night. Avoid drinking too much water for two hours before bedtime, as you will have to get up during the night to urinate.
- No coffee or caffeinated drinks after 3 PM.
The Body Scan
The body scan is a good, simple meditative technique than can be done any time of day, but is especially beneficial at night, if sleep is elusive.
- Lie on your bed or comfortably on the floor. Try and relax all your muscles. Inhale and exhale slowly a few times.
- With your next inhale, imagine that you are inhaling healing breath all the way into your left foot. Have your attention follow the breath into your left foot and observe all the sensations that arise in your foot. As you exhale, imagine you are ridding your left foot from any toxins that have accumulated. Take 3-5 breaths into the area of your left foot and slowly have your attention wander up your left leg. With each inhale, imagine your are bringing new energy into your left leg. Observe for tensions, and if you can, release them, let go. Once you have come to the top of your leg, move your attention to your right foot, inhale a healing breath into your right foot, then leg. And again, with each exhale, exhale toxins and stress.
- Then move your attention to your left hand, continue the slow process of inhaling and exhaling and attaching your attention to your breath as it wanders through your left arm. Then do the same on the right arm.
- Then move your attention to your back, initially the lower back, feel the weight of your body against the sheets or floor, feel the sensations, the pulsing of your breath and the vibrations of your heartbeat. Try breathing into your lower back, then the lower lungs, then the shoulders.
- Now mover your attention to the front of your torso, feel the rising and falling of the abdomen with each breath. Imagine again, that you are inhaling healing energy and exhaling toxins. Slowly move your attention up to your heart area, feel your beating heart, notice any other sensations in your chest. Remain here for several breaths.
- Then focus your attention on the back of your head. Breathe into the back of your head, your ears, breathe slowly in and out. Then take your attention to your jaw. Do you notice tension? Try and release your jaw. Try and release your facial muscles. Breathe healing energy in and toxins out. Then move your attention to your eyes and forehead. Try and relax both. Stay here for a few breaths. Then move your attention to the crown of your head. Breathe into the crown of your head, and imagine you are able to exhale through the top of your head. Breathe in and out through the top of your head, and imagine that you are taking in healing energy from the universe through the top of your head, and imagine that your exhaling breath mixes back with the endless amount of breath and life that is always around us.
Don't Suffer from Depression in Silence
TED Talk: Having feelings isn't a sign of weakness—they mean we're human, says producer and activist Nikki Webber Allen. Even after being diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Webber Allen felt too ashamed to tell anybody, keeping her condition a secret until a family tragedy revealed how others close to her were also suffering. In this important talk about mental health, she speaks openly about her struggle—and why communities of color must undo the stigma that misreads depression as a weakness and keeps sufferers from getting help.
Manage your stress with diaphramatic breathing
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Headspace teaches you life-changing skills of meditation and mindfulness in just a few minutes a day.
A great app for letting go of stress and improving your sleep.
Pros: teaches basic knowledge of breathing and visualization techniques, free 30 day Foundation pack for guided meditation, monitor your progress with daily stats.
Cons: Other packs can only be accessed with a subscription (12.99/month)
Books and Articles
The New York Times
By Eric Ravenscraft
January 23, 2020
The New York Times
By Charlotte Lieberman
March 25, 2019
The New York Times
By Jennifer Taitz
February 7, 2019
TED Talk videos about struggle and resilience and other helpful information.
The New York Times
By Emery Bergmann
October 9, 2018
Mind and Body
By Ed Hartwell
October 5 2018
The New York Times
By Heather Murphy
June 7, 2018
The New York Times
By Gretchen Reynolds
June 6, 2018
By Amya Pryce
by Taylor Leamey