Try this simple five-finger breathing exercise that you can do anywhere. (I do it in the dentist's chair). Hold one hand in front of you with your fingers spread apart. Now slowly trace the outside of your hand with the index finger of the other hand, inhaling as you slide one finger up and exhale as you slide down. Raise and lower all five fingers. When you have followed the entire hand, reverse direction and repeat the process. Here is an animation video that will help you.
This multisensory meditation practice was popularized by Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University's Center for Mindfulness and author of the new book Unwinding Anxiety: New Science. Brewer, who is also a neuroscientist, says it's important to remember that the brain is like a computer and only has a certain amount of working memory. Fear, worry, and other negative emotions can get the upper hand, leaving the brain with less room for other tasks that require thought and problem solving.
"Our thinking brain, the part of the brain that's supposed to help us solve problems, doesn't work when we're stressed," says Brewer. "The first thing we have to do is land in the present moment to calm down."
Brewer suggests five-finger breathing as it is a multi-sensory task. When you look at your hand and draw along your fingers, you have both sight and touch in both hands. You are also focused on your breath, which leaves very little room in your brain for negative thoughts.
"Five-finger breathing restarts the computer," says Brewer. "So many sensory modalities are required that people are more likely to calm down."
Of course, when you finish five-finger meditation, your negative thoughts can return, but calming your emotional state can help keep those thoughts from getting the upper hand. "If that worrying thought comes back, there is now a mismatch with your emotional intensity," Brewer said. “You can see the worried thought and not get caught up in it. When you're calm, worrying thoughts aren't as sticky as when your physiology is racing. "
Another quick calming trick Brewer recommends is the Feel Your Feet exercise. When you're feeling stressed or just needing a conscious break from work, take a moment to focus on your feet. How do your feet feel right now? Are they hot, cold, sweaty, tingly or dry? Do you feel one foot differently than the other?
Brewer calls feet "fear-free zones".
"We tend not to keep fear on our feet," he says. “You also feel the ground connection. When someone is standing or sitting in a chair, feeling their feet makes them feel more connected to the floor. "
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, the New York Times' award-winning consumer health website. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series Life, Interrupted, and is the author of For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. @ Taraparkerpope