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.
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.