You’re exhausted. Your breath is shallow. You’re clenching your teeth and your shoulders are in knots.
And the next thing on your to-do list is to meditate.
Feels like a joke, right?
Sitting for meditation seems like last thing you can do when you’re stressed. And sitting still? Forget about it. You feel anxious just thinking about not twitching and squirming.
What’s the Minimum Effective Meditation?
If you’re stressed out, one of the first benefits you want from meditation is stress reduction. And for that, meditation is proving to be quite effective.
Meditation is one of the best ways to reset your nervous system, calm your mind, manage the emotions and thought-patterns that lead to stress, and activate the relaxation response.
Science backs this up.
Research shows that meditation helps with PTSD, borderline high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and lowering cortisol (the stress hormone). Meditation research is still in its infancy but so far, meditation looks like a great antidote to stress.
But if you’re busy, you don’t have much time and mental bandwidth for meditation. So what is the smallest amount of meditation that will get you results?
The jury is still out.
One study showed measurable changes to brain matter in the regions of memory, sense of self, empathy and stress in just 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) practice. Another study found that meditating for just 25 minutes/day for 3 consecutive days reduced stress.
So while there is no definitive answer about how much meditation is enough, it doesn’t take a lot.
This is good news for you.
You can get great results with whatever you can manage.
But how do you get started when you feel too frazzled to start?
The answer is a combination of acceptance, strategy, and kindness.
Be the Stressed Out Buddha
Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun who always has good advice about bringing meditation into our ordinary, busy lives. In this discussion, Ani Pema is taking questions from the audience.
“Do you have a regular meditation practice?” (Pema Chödrön) asks.
“And how does that feel these days?”
“It feels hurried.”
“I have a child with disabilities, so meditation has to be fit in. I can’t just decide to go sit down. It has to be set up.”
“I get it,” Ani Pema says slowly. “So, okay, that’s how it is currently—uncomfortable, hurried. Things as they are.” Then she comes back to what we’ve been talking about this morning: unconditional friendship. Ani Pema’s advice is this: don’t reject what you see in yourself; embrace it instead. Feeling Hurried Buddha, Feeling Cut Off from Nature Buddha, Feeling No Compassion Buddha—recognize the buddha in each feeling.
Even if you aren’t Buddhist, there’s wisdom in embracing yourself exactly how you are. Be the “Stressed-out Meditator.” Let go of fighting the stress and accept that for now, it is.
Since part of meditation is learning to be present in the moment, your first meditation is being present in stress.
For now, you’re exhausted. For now, your breath is shallow. For now, you’re clenching your teeth.
By being present in your stress, you have already started meditating.
Make a Stress-Meditation Strategy
The next step to mediating when you’re too stressed to meditate is to set realistic expectations. For most people, this means reducing their meditation goals to what they can accomplish. If you’re already stressed and just starting a practice, you probably will not be able to practice for hours. That’s OK.
Instead, start where you are and scale your expectations to whatever you have available. Think “appropriate” instead of “ideal”. Ask yourself, “Given the many responsibilities and demands I have, what is the appropriate amount of time I can give to meditation?”
If it’s 10 minutes/day, that’s OK. 5 minutes? Ok too. Practice every other day? Go for it.
Be gentle with yourself and know that whatever you do is more than nothing. Little steps can get you a long way.
Then create a meditation plan that is easy-peasy. If having a set time, place, and ritual helps you practice, create a routine. On the other hand, if you balk at structure, fit your meditation practice around your activities.
If you’re worried about taking too much time with your practice, use a timer to put your mind at ease. There are apps that have beautiful chimes and signing bowls to tell you when your practice is done.
How should you meditate? Again, the answer is whatever is easiest for you. Some people like to mediate on objects like sounds, smells, or perhaps the flame of a candle. Others like open awareness. Still others like to count breaths. Or meditate on compassion. Or repeat mantras.
When you are stressed and starting a practice, the most important goal is that you start. Choose the meditation that works best for you.
Treat Yourself with Puppy-ear Softness
Even with the best meditation plan, there are bound to be days when you find your practice challenging.
Your last step is being kind to yourself. Be soft and gentle. Treat yourself with the compassion you would show others.
But be careful. Your mind can be tricky. Sometimes it confuses being compassionate with making excuses for yourself.
The most effective approach is to practice gentle, loving discipline, combined with forgiveness if you fall short.
Remember, a demanding, guilt-ridden practice is not going to help your stress. But a joyful, fun one? That is what you need. Practice your stress-meditation with curiosity and see what happens next.
Find grounding interesting? So does Julia. Julia Rymut is a yoga instructor who loves playing with the mind-body connection. If you want to join the fun, sign up for her email list at TaraTrue.com
Camilla Hallstrom says
Great post and tips, Julia. As a newbie to meditation and having a busy schedule, I can relate to what was pointed out in this post. However, making it a habit to meditate daily for 10 minutes rules out almost any excuse. 🙂
Julia Rymut says
Yes, even if you only have 10 minutes, that is a great place to start. Make it as easy as possible.
Good luck getting started!
I love the acceptance in allowing what you are feeling to be without resisting it further. I always try to remember what Fear stands for: False Evidence Appearing Real. We are not our thoughts. Thank you for all the great insights and reminders in this article!
Very true about FEAR, but not always easy, is it? I find the things that I care most about are the hardest to accept their reality. When I really want a calm, centered, balanced life and my life is anything but calm or centered, I make it crazier by fighting the chaos.
Thank you for your insights. 🙂
I love being in the moment( not perfect) i have also been doing walking medn around my flower garden.
I appreciate all the incites u have to offer,
What a lovely idea, Elizabeth. I like the idea of walking meditating in a flower garden.
Keep me posted on how your mediation practice develops.
Love this post! It’s so easy to think you don’t have time to take, just to sit back and meditate. I practice sitting meditation at work on particular stressful days. Just taking five minutes to breathe whilst sitting at my desk makes a huge difference! Looking forward to reading more of you posts.
Thank you, Lei. I agree that taking just 5 minutes to breathe in a stressful situation really helps. I feel more grounded and calm afterwards.