The following is an adapted excerpt from my new book Ancient Remedies: Secrets to Healing with Herbs, Essential Oils, CBD, and the Most Powerful Natural Medicine in History (Little, Brown Spark).
Adopting habits to help you deal with emotions doesn’t mean you should never feel bad or ignore sadness, pain, or fear. Quite the opposite.
It’s natural to feel out of sorts or overwhelmed at times; we all experience an array of negative emotions every day. The key is to recognize the ones that are most likely to trip you up and face them, because the longer they linger, the more likely they are to become toxic. There are a number of time-tested mind-body practices that can help you stay on top of your feelings.
And here’s the best news of all: You don’t need a prescription in order to add these life-changing practices to your daily routine. They don’t cost a dime. They’re risk-free. And you have the power to adopt them right now.
The following ancient techniques are specifically designed to help you consciously recognize when you’ve become stuck in negativity, and they give you the tools you need to restore your emotional equilibrium so your feelings don’t derail your health.
This practice is truly ancient. Its roots in Judaism and India extend back six thousand years. It has lasted through the ages and is astoundingly popular in the United States today for one reason: It actually changes the structure of your brain, training it to become not only more aware of your moment‑by‑moment feelings, but also to be more resilient and calm.
At its core, meditation involves letting your thoughts rest on a single point of focus — your breath, for instance, or a word like love. When your focus drifts, acknowledge it, then return your mind, without judgment, to your breath. Practicing this basic type of meditation can make you more adept at recognizing emotions as they come up.
It also helps you understand a vital concept: Your emotions aren’t you — they’re passing feelings that come and go like clouds in the sky. That simple but profound notion helps loosen the grip of toxic emotions. A slightly different version of the practice, known as loving-kindness meditation, which was described in the Bible and has roots in Buddhism and Judaism, goes even further by actively shifting the mind from fear, anxiety, irritation, or anger to love, empathy, and compassion.
By doing so, loving-kindness meditation not only protects you from toxic emotions, it also helps you be a better spouse, parent, partner, friend, and colleague. Research has shown that meditating on compassion and kindness is linked to an increase in positive social behaviors, like generosity.
Sound appealing? Here’s how to do it:
- Sit comfortably in a quiet place, close your eyes, and bring your awareness to your breath for a few inhales and exhales.
- Once you feel settled, think of someone who loves — or loved — you unconditionally.
- Feel the sensation of their love in your heart and breathe it in. Visualize that love flowing throughout your whole body, circulating just like blood and qi. Allow yourself to marinate in that feeling for at least ten breaths.
- Then, imagine sending that feeling to someone else. Hold on to an image of that person, and repeat in your mind, “May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be at peace.”
When I do this practice, I meditate on how I can be more loving, often with the help of a verse from the Bible. I ask God to fill my heart with his love, and I think about how I can be a more loving spouse, parent, business partner, and friend. Even five minutes a day fills me with a sense of calm and helps me feel more connected to the people I love.
Not only can loving-kindness meditation increase your equanimity, over time it will also decrease the intensity of chronic, harmful emotions and amplify the healing feelings of compassion, kindness, and love.
2. Spiritual Triathlon
I do this trio of ancient practices every day. It centers me, grounds me, gives me hope, and helps me consciously think about — and appreciate — the good things in my life. The spiritual triathlon was a cornerstone of my mom’s anti-cancer plan, and I routinely recommend it to patients, friends, and family.
My spiritual triathlon begins with ten minutes of gratitude: writing down or just thinking about things I’m grateful for. Spending time in gratefulness helps me savor the good things in my life and focus less on negative emotions. What’s more, studies show it can enhance your physical and psychological health, boost your happiness and life satisfaction, and protect you from materialism and burnout.
Next, I do ten minutes of Bible reading. I like to read scripture because the Bible’s ancient wisdom guides me and helps me live in accordance with my values and beliefs. But you can choose your own form of spiritual reading — any text that makes you think about living a life of purpose and depth will do the trick.
Having purpose in life is more than just a new age concept, by the way. It integrates who you are as a human being with what you do in your everyday life — and it gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. What’s more, a feeling of purpose is fundamental to happiness, fulfillment, passion, productivity, and overall health.
The final leg of my spiritual triathlon is ten minutes of prayer, a practice that helps me find peace no matter what is happening in my life. Research shows it can reduce stress, and people who pray are less likely to experience worry, fear, self-consciousness, and social anxiety.
Meditation works, too, as does a walk in the woods. Choose the practice that most consistently grounds you, helps you feel connected to something greater than yourself, and counterbalances the daily onslaught of stress.
The practice of daly affirmations has been lampooned over the years, but it continues to be widely used because it is an effective way to shore up your private image of yourself, which has a number of positive effects.
Research shows that self-affirmation helps you structure information and focus on the big picture. And other research has shown that self-affirmations restore your sense of competence when it has been rocked in some way (whether you’ve lost your job, been diagnosed with cancer or another scary disease, or are in the midst of a divorce).
What’s more, research also indicates that sedentary people who practice self-affirmations are more likely to begin exercising. To use affirmations to reverse negative thought patterns, first write down the negative messages you’re sending yourself — “I am going to die of this disease” or “I’m not going to be able to afford my mortgage.”
Then write a powerful statement that counteracts it, like “I’m going to live a long, vibrant life” or “I’m going to find a lucrative job that’s better suited to me than my last one.” Repeat the affirmation aloud for three minutes in the morning and at night.
4. Random Acts of Kindness
As Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, said, “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
What we now know is that kindness boosts happiness and optimism, bolsters your self-esteem, supports your immune system, improves the health of your heart, and promotes healthy aging. A study found that performing small kindnesses for seven days increased study participants’ happiness — and the more kind acts they performed, the greater the boost.
Kindness doesn’t have to be expensive, time-consuming, or involved. It can include holding the door for someone, complimenting a stranger, picking up litter in your neighborhood, paying for someone’s coffee, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, or writing a letter to a mentor or friend expressing your gratitude for how they’ve positively influenced your life.
Research shows that being kind feels good because it affects a range of mood-related hormones, bolstering oxytocin, the love hormone, and serotonin, a happiness-related chemical, while decreasing cortisol, the stress hormone.
Even better: Kindness is contagious. Merely witnessing an act of kindness can make you happy — and more likely to do something kind yourself.