"Three-quarters of what we think are negative, frightening thoughts, and those directly affect our bodies," says Joan Borysenko, former director of the Mind/Body Clinical Programs at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center, and author of books such as Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
Most negative thoughts are about the future or the past, she says, which means we can help our health by learning to stay focused on the present with activities such as yoga, tae kwon do, tai chi or meditation.
"Meditation is any activity that keeps your attention pleasantly anchored in the present moment," Borysenko says.
Here's what to try:
- Experiment with any repetitive form of exercise - walking, biking or swimming - that lets your body move while your mind travels elsewhere. Leave your headphones off, and focus on the sensations around you.
- Anything creative, whether it's knitting a sweater, writing in a journal or painting a border on your bedroom wall, reduces stress and gives you the opportunity to be mindful. Try using a mantra to keep your attention from wandering - it can be any repeated word or phrase that you find meaningful, like "peace," or "I am grateful."
- Put on your favorite music and really listen to it-don't just use it as background. Try a classical album: Research shows that listening to 30 minutes of classical music may produce calming effects equivalent to taking 10mg of Valium.
If you have trouble focusing while you meditate, use a guided meditation CD to help keep your thoughts on track. Borysenko has made several. (Visit joanborysenko.com to find one that suits you, as well as tips for meditation and a newsletter.) Her latest book, Saying Yes to Change, comes packaged with a meditation CD.
- Between 60 and 90 percent of all physician visits are for stress-related complaints, so learning to cope with stress can make a big difference in your health. The simplest way is to learn how to breathe properly.
"There's a direct correlation between heart rate and breathing," Borysenko says. "If you breathe properly - from your belly - you bring in the right amount of oxygen, enabling your heart to beat more slowly.
"Breathing from your chest (a.k.a. shallow breathing) is much more stressful. It raises your heart rate, alerting your brain that you're in a stressful situation."
Better breathing tips:
1. Practice awareness. Learn to catch yourself when you're feeling stressed, and realize that you can do something about it by changing how you breathe.
2. Find your center. Think of a time when you felt confident and peaceful. This place, deep inside yourself, is your center. Imagine your breath coming and going from that centered, confident place.
3. Breathe in. As you inhale, picture your breath moving from your center, expanding out into your sides, lower belly and back.
4. Breathe out. Feel your belly, back and sides contract as you exhale.