It is difficult to make sound decisions, nurture relationships, think creatively, control our reactions, manage conflict or be optimistic, happy or effective when we are under stress and perceived expectations. The first and best action we can take regularly to increase our effectiveness in all times is to be self-aware – know what is going on with us in the given moment and use learned practices to control and deliver the messages and actions we want – this is our emotional intelligence. Being self-aware and accessing and managing our emotional intelligence is not simply will power. Science has shown we experience physical and chemical changes in our bodies when under stress. These physical reactions can create a lack of self-control and block access to our “thinking” part of the brain. It is our duty to know ourselves and learn and practice techniques that will support our emotional intelligence and our effectiveness.
While studying transcendental meditation in the 1970s, Herbert Benson, M.D., discovered that certain changes in our body occur with deep relaxation – reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure, relaxed muscles, and altered brainwave patterns. Benson named this state of calmness our “relaxation response,” and viewed it as biology’s answer to the fight-or-flight response – which is the set of changes that occur when we experience danger or acute stress.
Here are a few tangible practices to access the relaxation response, thereby increasing your emotional intelligence and your effectiveness in the moment:
1. Deep Breathing
- Take a normal breath and notice how it feels.
- Now take a slow, deep breath so your belly expands. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Take one normal breath, then one slow breath. How does that feel?
- Practice deep breathing for several minutes, sighing on the exhale.
- Breathe deeply for 10 minutes and say silently to yourself “Breathing in peace and calm, breathing out tension and anxiety.”
2. Muscle Relaxation
- Take several deep breaths.
- Concentrate on your forehead. Tighten these muscles, while counting slowly from one to five. Hold them tight as you can, then let go while taking a slow, deep breath. Repeat.
- Repeat this process, moving down your body, tightening a particular set of muscles for a count of one to five, then releasing them as you take a deep breath: jaw, neck, chest, abdomen, right shoulder, right upper arm, right forearm, right fist, left shoulder, left upper arm, left forearm, left fist, pelvis and buttocks, right thigh, right calf, right foot, left thigh, left calf and left foot.
- Do a mental check from head to toe to sense any remaining stress. Repeat the areas that need it.
- Close your eyes and take several deep breaths.
- Imagine in your mind, a special place where you know you can relax.
- Spend time in this place and take in what’s around you. Focus on colors and shapes. Focus on smells and sounds. Focus on movement and sensations.
- Allow yourself to become totally absorbed in the sense of peace.
- Identify one negative thought pattern that plays repeatedly in your head and write it down as a sentence or two.
- Ask yourself these four questions: Does this thought contribute to my stress? Where did I learn this thought? Is this a logical thought? Is this thought true?
- Create your own restructured thought and write it down under the original one. Refer to it whenever the negative thought reemerges.
- The practice of meditation involves a turning inward of our attention, a repetitive focus on breathing or a simple word, phrase or prayer. You may choose a word that is secular (Peace) or religious (Hail Mary or Shalom). In this exercise, we suggest using the old Sanskrit mantra, Ham Sah (Ham means I am; Sah means that) because the sounds reflect the sensations of breathing and letting go.
- Find a comfortable place to sit and close your eyes. Starting with the number 10, silently count down to zero, breathing in and out on each count.
- Now as you breathe in, say the word “Ham” (pronounced ham) silently to yourself. As you exhale, concentrate on the word “Sah” (pronounced saah).
- Continue to note your breathing. As you inhale, pause for a few seconds. As you exhale, pause for a few seconds.
- Stay as focused as you can on your breathing and these words.
- When it’s time to close, continue to be aware of your breathing, but start to become aware of your surroundings. Slowly open your eyes and take in what is around you. Get up gradually.
Don’t judge yourself as you meditate. If your mind wanders or your thoughts race around, just calmly resume your breathing and repeat your phrase.
Begin by setting aside 10 minutes for each session, then gradually work up to 20.