I was in college and like many, I found myself experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety. Sure there are plenty of destructive ways to numb these feelings, but somehow I found my way to a simple method that has helped me and also helped the many people I have shared it with over the years. I hadn’t done it in a few years, but as I’m sharing some of my basic techniques here at chrisbrownstudios.com, today I gave it a try and it still works like a charm!
Ok, Not Just Walking,
You Need to Do a Few Other Simple Things to Get Started
The foundation of this exercise started with an article I read during those stressed out college years. It recommended spending a few minutes concentrating on counting from one to four to help reduce stress. I remember trying it at my desk during a study break and it didn’t work for me at all. But that’s not the end of the story…
Discovering the Exercise Lead-In
I did find a way to make the counting exercise work wonders. I was always a terrible runner growing up, so during college, I decided to see if I could change that and become a better runner. The University’s running track was nearby, had a nice cushioning, and provided an easy way to track how far I was going. I used to do a few laps, and then end with a lap or two of walking as a cool down. It was during one of these cool downs that I spontaneously tried the counting from one to four method. For some reason, I was able to focus better than during my previous attempts at my desk, and although I kept accidentally going past four, I enjoyed playing with this mental exercise. We now know why the counting method worked at this specific time.
Why the Exercise Lead-In Works
A recent study conducted at the Gould Lab at Princeton University has uncovered some of the behind the scenes science of why the exercise lead-in works. Elizabeth Gould and her team conducted studies on both runners and mice and found that exercise prompts the creation of new and excitable cells in our brains. “Excitable cells” doesn’t seem like it would help to calm things down. However, what they also found is that the runner’s brains also produced a significant number of new neurons which release the neurotransmitter GABA, a substance which significantly calms brain activity. This means that exercise stimulates the creation of new cells while at the same time creating a calming environment within our brains which allows our cells to relax and rest.
How Going in Circles Can Work for You
So here’s what worked for me and how you can develop your own practice.
Step 1 – The Warm Up
Depending on your level of physical fitness, find yourself a track, or a loop route in a park that is fairly short – about a quarter to a half mile (about a half kilometer). Go for an easy jog around this loop. The track or the loop helps reinforce the idea that you have nowhere to go, promoting being in the present moment. We are not trying to do intense exercise here, or “get in shape”, we are simply trying to get our breathing to be nice and deep, our blood to be circulating, and our muscles to be warm. If your breath is to the point where it would be challenging to carry a conversation, but not impossible, and you are getting a bit sweaty, you are in the right place. Continue your jog, or brisk walk, or whatever exercise you are doing in this loop for anywhere from five minutes to an hour, as long as you can keep relaxed. You have now completed the exercise needed to get your brain to the desired place.
Step 2 – Walking in Circles
Maybe this sounds boring, but once you try it, you realize – now the fun starts! Bring yourself down to a walking pace, continuing on the same track or loop that you used for your warm up, all the while paying close attention to your breath. Your brain should now be in a relaxed enough place that you can begin the counting from one to four exercise. Try tying the counting to your breaths – inhale “one”, exhale “two”, inhale “three”, exhale “four”, inhale “one”, etc. You will most likely find that you go a few rounds and suddenly discover you are counting to six or ten or some other number. No need to judge yourself, simply smile and start at one again. Only do the exercise for as long as you find it enjoyable. Five or ten minutes in the beginning is a good start.
My experience was that I came away feeling extremely calm, relaxed, and mentally rested. According the Princeton Study, this is the expected result, so give it a try! As you continue the practice, you will find that, just as repeated exercise builds your stamina, your mental stamina and ability to concentrate on counting will increase. It is common to build the walking in circles and counting to anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.
Step 3 – Expanding the Practice
I found, with varying degrees of success, that I was eventually able to bring the practice outside of walking in circles to other periods of walking. The experience of many of us who have tried this practice is that during the first few months, without the initial warm up exercise, our brains find it too difficult to transition into the quiet mental space that allows the counting meditation to easily unfold. For example, during college I would try the counting exercise while walking from my dorm to classes and was unable to concentrate and would get easily frustrated. This changed after a few months and eventually I was able to do the practices while walking just about anywhere, and it became an easy method to quickly find a calm and easy space during my day.
Walking in Circles Gets You Where You Need to Go
My guess is that over time, the changes taking place in my brain were significant and my training was enough that I had developed a tool for use anytime, anywhere. Over the years, as I have recommended this practice to many of my students, with similar results, but the only way to know if it works for you is to try it out yourself!
The mental practice of walking in circles, focusing on a counting meditation tied to your breath, teaches you that there is no place to get to; the practice itself is the place to be. This practice is a great method, scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety. It’s an important place where we all need to go, a place that I hope we all can get to.
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