When fear, anger, frustration, sadness or anxiety is poking a hole in your happiness bubble, every organ in the body reacts — including your heart, brain, skin, kidneys and intestines. It’s easy to spot the effects on the outside. One example is a plump belly, the result of a body that’s pumping out high amounts of the stress-related hormone cortisol, which causes us to store fat in our stomachs. Wrinkles and lackluster skin? These mood states activate our nervous system to cause inflammation and oxidation, which are known to cause wrinkles and lackluster skin. Things inside aren’t pretty either. Your stomach may be churning, your head pounding, your back tweaking and your heart beating a little faster. In a word, when we’re the opposite of happy or balanced, our body does its best to alert us that things are out of whack. Learning ways to deal with and process stress and negative emotions will bring you one step closer to a state of balance, or what some describe as a positive state of being.
So where do you begin? Experts say that engaging your body and breath regularly and constructively are two amazing tools for getting you closer to that balance. When we’re in balance, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) — which regulates key areas of our bodies including the heart and the intestinal tract — are much happier. Try these tips for getting in balance:
Move often. According to the American Council on Exercise, one 30-minute exercise session generates 90 to 120 minutes of relaxation response. Essentially this is a state your ANS likes to be in — heart rate, blood pressure and breathing is regulated and the body is functioning normally, as opposed to being in an all-systems-alert state of arousal. And consider that for your 30-minute investment, you get a three- to four-fold gain (not to mention what the exercise is doing for your brain, heart, belly, hips and thighs). To top it off, you get a mood boost, thanks to the surge in neurotransmitters and endorphins released by the brain during exercise.
Use your breath. We’re not talking about running on a treadmill, but rather practicing a technique that focuses on finding calm through your breath. Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, offers this short breathing meditation, intended to stabilize the autonomic nervous system.
To start the meditation, place both hands, one on top of the other, over the center of your chest. This is your heart center. Now close your eyes and become aware of each in breath and each out breath. Now visualize an image that is emotionally endearing to you. (Dr. Morledge pictures his son when he was an infant and he was rocking him to sleep.) Stay with this image and the feeling that accompanies it for a minute, while maintaining an awareness of each breath. Then slowly open your eyes and move into your day.
It’s best to practice this on occasion, says Dr. Morledge, so that when you really need it, you can evoke the image and move into this relaxed state more effectively.
Use your senses to bring you more into the moment. While we’re making dinner, we could choose to chop and worry about the 10 million other things that need to get done this week. Or we could give our brains a break, while using our bodies — primarily our senses — to derive pleasure from the moment. Something as simple as noticing the vibrant color of an orange pepper, touching its smooth exterior, noticing the sweet smell and tasting the crispness of it engages all our senses and regulates the autonomic nervous system. All this and you’ve invested five, maybe 10 seconds of your time. This isn’t to say that we need to go through our day staring at peppers and savoring each little moment. That’s not practical or even safe. But being more attuned to the little opportunities for being physically engaged throughout your day does fuel your well-being.
Smile and mean it. A smile that’s genuine — the kind where you’re using those crow’s-feet muscles on either side of your eyes — actually grabs on to specific parts of your brain that bring joy. Research has shown that configuring the face this way actually stimulates the ANS and signals the brain that we’re happy about something. An insincere (or social) smile — the kind typically associated with stress that only engages our mouth, and not our eyes as well — actually has the opposite effect by triggering the ANS that something is not right, which in turn ups adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that feed coronary heart disease.
Build up your inventory of small, feel-good indulgences. If Egyptian cotton sheets bring a smile to your face every time you slink under the bedcovers, then treat yourself to some. If the scent of green apple or orange perks up your mood, then buy a candle or some body scrub with these scents. If all of your shoes are killing your feet by the end of the day, then hobble over to the nearest shoe store and treat your feet to comfortable shoes.
Figure out where happiness lives in your body and feed it. “If topping off your morning cereal with a handful of sweet, ripened raspberries brings a smile to your face, says Pardo, “then make a point to pick up some raspberries. If a two-minute foot rub leaves you smiling long afterwards, get one. “It sounds so simple, but so often we’re focused on other people’s happiness that we overlook small things that feed our own.”
As you set goals for yourself, allow for gradual change and setbacks. Make room for all your complicated and contradictory feelings in this process toward growth and self-awareness. Allow yourself to fully experience the ebb and flow of relationships, as well as the challenge of negotiating what you need for your one-of-a-kind recipe for happiness.