We all feel stressed at times. You’ve been meaning to find a way to manage your overall stress levels. You’re going to start a meditation practice…soon. Or, you plan to make physical activity a more regular part of your busy schedule. But, what can you do when you’re running late for work, your kid spills juice on you, and then you get stuck in traffic? Here are 5 tips that can help you decrease stress in the moment.
Before reading any further, STOP! Let your tongue fall away from the roof of your mouth. Now, release your jaws so they aren’t clenched anymore. Better?
When we get stressed, we often complain of muscle tension. It may sound counterintuitive but tensing your whole body (in an intentional way) then actively releasing it can help you bring awareness to areas you’re holding tension, then allow you to let it go.
Close your eyes and inhale deeply through the nose. Moving up progressively from the feet tense body parts, hold for a count of three, then let go with a big exhale through the mouth. While you can do the whole body at once, try spending a few minutes to work your way up through the body – think left and right sides of the body (feet, lower legs, knees, thighs, hands, arms, shoulders, etc.), then shifting to the low belly, low back, mid belly, mid-back, chest, upper back, neck, face, jaw, eyes. Take a few more deep breaths then open your eyes.
In times of high stress your body is literally calling out to you. Muscle pain, shallow breathing, headaches, stomach pains. Body scans can help to ground you in the present moment, bringing awareness to what is going on, instead of allowing you to continue on a downward spiral into your stress. By acknowledging your body’s response to stress, without judgement, you are able to change your relationship to stress, out of control emotions, and even chronic pain.
Allow your eyes to close. Beginning at the crown of your head move evenly down through the body. Just noticing. Not judging or trying to change anything. Try to give equal attention to areas that feel good or neutral as to those areas of discomfort or pain. Passively acknowledge each sensation as an outside observer, without being tied to the experience. Complete the session with a few deep energizing inhales through the nose and exhales through the mouth.
If you prefer a guided relaxation, download one to your music or podcast files. I love the Headspace app. It has exercises as short as 1 minute across a variety of mindfulness and stress-reducing themes.
Chances are you’ve heard about the many positive benefit of physical exercise on improving our ability to manage stress, in addition to the well-researched physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits. However, in moments of high stress we usually can’t run out to the gym or drop into a yoga class. In the acclaimed book by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he argues that animals are immune to chronic stress is because they know how to dissipate it. Think of a possum after it plays dead. The first think it does is get up and shake. Then it goes back to its day – living in the moment, not being anxious of what is to come or the stress-inducing moment that just passed.
By taking a cue from the animal kingdom, we can burn off stress and the buildup of stress hormones by literally shaking it off. For a few minutes just move in all directions. Swing your arms, shake out your legs, jump up and down. Release the stress and enjoy the mental and physical reset induced by shaking.
Take a moment to check in with your breath. Many of us are in the habit of shallow breathing into our chests, particularly in times of stress. Get out of that “fight or flight” state with deep belly breathing – or diaphragmatic breathing.
Start by lying down on the floor with your knees up or sitting comfortably in a chair, relaxing the neck and shoulders. Place one hand on your belly, just above your navel, and the other hand on your upper chest. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose allowing the breath to fill your belly. Allow the hand on the belly to rise with the inhale, without actively pushing out through your stomach. Exhale slowly through pursed lips, pulling the belly towards your spine by engaging your abdominals. The hand on your chest should generally stay still. As you start this practice try doing it a few times a day for 2 minutes and gradually build up to 5-10 minutes. If you feel lightheaded, return to your normal breathing and stay seated until it passes. With regular practice diaphragmatic breathing will become easier and maybe even automatic.
Okay, this one may be difficult to do in any moment, but with a little creativity you can usually find a place. (When I had an office with a door on it, this was one of my favorite afternoon refreshers). This position comes from the restorative yoga pose Viparita Karani, translated to Legs up the Wall. Bringing our legs over our head provides a change of perspective with a number physiological benefits: it relieves tired legs from standing and sitting; it reverses our circulation allowing blood to flow more easily to the heart and the head; and, it induces a state of relaxing calmness by lowering the heart rate and slowing the breathing. To come into this pose, sit parallel to a wall with one hip against it, begin to rotate your torso down to the floor and perpendicular to the wall at the same time as your feet slide up the wall. Move hips a few inches (or more) away from the wall until you are comfortable. Allow your arms to rest on the floor to the sides of the torso in a “V” shape, palms turned up towards the ceiling. Take slow deep breaths in and out through the nose, trying to extend the exhale a few counts longer than the inhale. To make this extra comfy you can place folded blankets under your hips and head, supporting your neck. If you don’t have an empty wall, you can do a modified version by placing your lower legs on the seat of a chair with your torso on the floor. Stay here for up to 10 minutes.
While you’re working on your long-term plans to manage chronic stress, I hope you find these tools useful to use to overcome high stress moments.
*If you’re overwhelmed by stress, seek help from a healthcare professional. Seek help right away if you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or of suicide, or are turning to drugs or alcohol to cope. You can find resources to help you find a mental health provider by visiting www.nimh.nih.gov/findhelp.*
Mindfulness is one of the four core skills introduced in a highly effective type of therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT incorporates the Eastern practice of mindful meditation into talk therapy. The combination of practicing mindful meditation and evaluating negative thought patterns can significantly increase relaxation and help one cope with strong emotions.
So what exactly is mindfulness and how do we become more mindful? Being mindful is a state of mind that can be achieved with regular practice. Mindfulness is the act of simply observing our thoughts and feelings without imposing judgement on those thoughts or feelings such that they are “good” or “bad”. Let’s be honest, to refrain from judging and criticizing our own thoughts and feelings is a hard feat to conquer. We judge ourselves constantly throughout the day; therefore, it will understandably take a fair amount of practice and time to eventually master this art.