Health

The 7 ‘Sacred Pauses’ That Help You Squash Stress Each Day

We all long to feel a deeper sense of peace and purpose, but everyday stressors like paying bills and folding laundry make it difficult to find the magic and meaning in the madness. However, scientists and religious leaders alike have found that pausing at seven specific times a day — for as little as one minute — to reflect, pray, or nurture our spirits, can usher in true tranquility. 

Practicing these “sacred pauses” has existed in many cultures and faith customs for thousands of years, and is traditionally timed to the movement of the sun. In Benedictine monasteries, for instance, it’s called “Praying the Divine Hours,” and historically, each pause was signaled with church bells ringing. But now we can set our phones to chime, gently inviting us to make that moment meaningful. 

“Reflecting spiritually — no matter your religion or beliefs — focuses the mind on something positive, leads to better mental health, and clears the mind to make better decisions,” says Harold G. Koenig, MD, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center. And in our overstimulated world, we need these pauses more than ever, adds John Eldredge, author of Restoration Year and president of the Ransomed Heart Christian ministry. “The One Minute Pause is an absolute lifesaver for me,” he shares. “It gives me breathing room to come back to myself and to God.” 

Macrina Wiederkehr, author of Seven Sacred Pauses ($15.42, Amazon), says, “No matter what faith tradition we follow — even if we have no religious persuasion — we are all pilgrims,” she says. “We all have to move through the day with grace, and this teaches us to slow down. My motto: I break for blessings!” 

Read on to learn how — and when! — experts from a range of faiths and backgrounds tap into this rejuvenating ritual. It’s a simple habit that allows us, in Abbot Jerome Kodell’s words, “to gather up the crumbs, the little things in our lives, and realize they have the makings of a banquet.”

Dawn: The Awakening Hour

The first pause of the day, traditionally taken just before the sun peeks over the horizon, is meant to fill us with joy and new possibilities. “Just before morning light, around 5:30 or 6 a.m., I like to pause and light a candle,” shares Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and author of Finding Balance ($19.70, Amazon). “It’s a simple ritual that goes well with a cup of tea or coffee and brings such a sense of hope.” As the sun rises, Rev. Stevens suggests taking a moment to watch the light dance. “Let the morning sun touch the deepest parts of you and imagine it awakening your most inspired hopes, thoughts and ideas.” 

This resplendent moment can set the tone for the entire day, agrees Tara Brach, PhD, a psychologist, meditation expert, and the author of Radical Acceptance ($17.55, Amazon). “During these early morning ‘awakening hours,’ we have the possibility of entering our day with an open heart and willing spirit,” she says. “The key is to call on your higher self, spirit, loving awareness or God to help you set your heart-intention and your aspirations for the day. Once you know your aspirations, let their goodness fill you, then humbly ask to be guided in fulfilling them.”

Mid-Morning: The Blessing Hour

As the sun slowly climbs higher in the sky and your day begins to pick up pace, take your next one-minute pause around 9 or 10 a.m. “Circadian-wise, this is a good time to generate creative thought and to problem-solve,” says Matthew Edlund, MD, of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Florida and author of The Power of Rest ($14.99, Amazon). “You may ask yourself, ‘Is there a new way to solve my problems?’” 

If you’re already feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by your growing to-do list for the day, Rev. Stevens suggests using your midmorning respite to reset and refocus on the positive. “I like to recite the Prayer of St. Francis, which in part says, ‘Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is despair, hope; and where there is sadness, joy,’” she shares. You can also create your own positive intention — like, “Today I’m a warrior, not a worrier” — to keep you on a peaceful and productive path. 

Rev. Stevens also suggests applying a drop of essential oil in a soothing scent (like lavender) to pulse points to anchor you in the moment.

Noon: The Hour of Illumination

Pausing at midday, when the sun assumes its most powerful position, can energize our spirits. To make the most of this bright break, take six or more long, deep breaths, suggests Darcia Narvaez, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame. “Deep breathing dramatically changes our metabolism and health for the better,” she explains. “It also activates the vagus nerve, which is vital for feeling connected to others.” 

While taking a few deep breaths can instantly help you feel refreshed, Brach says you can also use them as the foundation of an uplifting meditation: “Sit quietly, bring a slight smile to your lips and relax obvious areas of tension in your body. Now begin a long, slow in-breath and out-breath. As you breathe in, focus on receiving the light around you, letting its vitality fill your cells and the spaces between your cells. With the outflow, focus on releasing tension, thoughts, fears, blocks to aliveness. Finish by asking yourself, ‘How may I re-enter my day with an open heart?’”

Mid-Afternoon: The Wisdom Hour

As the sun begins its descent and the light grows soft around 3 p.m., it’s the perfect time to pause and release any built-up worry. “I take a moment to try to just let it all go,” confides Eldredge. “I do this by practicing ‘benevolent detachment,’ which involves praying until I feel like I’m actually releasing it all: the meetings, the stress, what’s coming up next for me, the fact that I’m totally behind on errands — just all of it.”

Going for a walk is another way to let your stress fall away. “Feeling the golden afternoon sun on your skin livens your soul and offers a space to remember your place in this wide world,” says Rev. Stevens, who is also the founder of ThistleFarms.org, an organization that aids women. “As I stroll, I repeat an 800-year-old prayer written by Julian of Norwich: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

Evening: The Twilight Hour

Taking a moment to watch the glory of the sunset can be deeply healing for the soul, suggests health expert Anthony William, the bestselling author of four books, including Medical Medium ($14.97, Amazon). “Old hurts from broken trust are the underlying reasons for so much of the stress we experience today,” he says. “A simple yet profoundly effective way to repair this emotional damage and restore trust is to become aware of the sunset. You may feel a sense of loss as the sun goes down, as if a friend has gone away… with the promise of returning tomorrow. That’s what makes this technique resonate on such a deep level: You face the falling darkness with the absolute, irrefutable knowledge that the light will return. And when the sun rises the next morning, you’ll click with the fact that, as promised, your friend has returned… and will do so for the rest of your time on Earth. Connecting with this truth that the sun will never let you down, the soul relearns critical trust, which activates true healing.”

Bedtime: The Great Silence

As darkness falls and you begin to wind down, pausing before sleep around 9 or 10 p.m. can serve as a time of gentle evaluation. “Quietly reviewing your day isn’t just about reflecting, it’s also about listening,” says Wiederkehr. “I often ask God what I need to hear, and what I should learn from my day.” 

With this pause, you also prepare the mind and body to get the most out of your rest. “Sleep is an adventure where the body and brain are rebuilt,” says Dr. Edlund. “For our body clocks to put us to sleep, we must be calm, so this is an ideal time for meditation or prayer to help the mind slow down and rest.” The key, he adds, is to turn off all lights and screens, so power down all devices after your last reminder to pause chimes.

After Midnight: The Night Watch

Not everyone will choose to practice this sacred pause, but if you find yourself awake in the deepest parts of the night, see it as a gift. Rev. Stevens uses sleepless moments to pray for others and make mental lists of gratitude. “Thinking of loved ones takes our mind off our own problems and breaks the anxiety loop that fills our mind in the middle of the night.” 

If you still have trouble shaking your regrets or worries, try this soothing posture during your pause: “To calm and quiet your body and mind, lie on your back with one hand on your belly and the other on your heart,” advises Brach. “Bring a slight smile to your lips, soften your eyes and take some moments to scan through your body, releasing obvious areas of tightness like your shoulders, hands, and belly. Breathe deeply and use this time to deepen your pathways to peace.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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