By Holly Konrady, M.Ed., E-RYT 500
The roller coaster ride is about to start. There are people sitting in the back rows already holding the bar with white knuckles and gritting their teeth; the people in the front are laughing and throwing their arms in the air with anticipation of an exhilarating ride; the people in the middle seats vary from looking bored to chatting nervously, while others wait patiently for the ride to begin.
This illustrates a spectrum of stress. Each person’s perception of the ride determines how they go into it- and their response depicts a level of stress, some positive and some negative… maybe even pure fear. This analogy illustrates how stress varies for people in everyday life with all situations- challenges, changes, and demands.
We hear stories about people who have super strength to save their life or others’ and that is because of the fight or flight response and its’ amazing design to aid survival. A threat (maybe a roller coaster ride) is perceived, and the brain sets off an alarm system in your body. Adrenaline and cortisol surge to put our bodies and minds into fight or flight. Breathing accelerates for more oxygen to the brain for alertness, the heart rate and blood pressure increase in order to send more blood to the heart and other muscles for more strength, endurance and energy to survive. When the event is over, our bodies and minds eventually return to a more peaceful state.
With modern day stressors, like floods of emails, texts, news alerts, traffic, finances, or relationships- that never end, the stress response is the same as for survival (above). It’s like a car idling too high for too long and we can’t turn it down or off. Depending upon our perception of any situation we can make peace with it or allow these stressors to affect our everyday lives. When we are under long term stress immune function, digestion, and growth are altered, because who needs these functions when trying to survive- momentarily, but in the long term, we need these to live. Over time, our thoughts and perceptions in our minds can cause anxiety, agitation, depression or worry and continue to run a story that we get stuck in.
Awareness is the first key to management of stress. Know what your stress looks and feels like, then identify triggers as it is possible to avoid stress, for example, if you don’t like the way you feel on a roller coaster- don’t ride it! If unavoidable, reach for tools such as mindfulness techniques or meditation (interchangeable). Being mindful is paying attention on purpose to what is happening in the moment without judgement- and with acceptance- hence, lean into the feeling of stress instead of running away. Return to the body as a way of knowing what is going on rather than run a story about it. Use anchors for your mind, such as external sounds, sights, tastes, smells or feel body sensations, like breathing or feel specific physical points. The moment the mind strays (and it will!) draw the mind back to your anchor.
Here are 10 techniques to try when you are feeling stress, but don’t wait for stress- practice when you’re not feeling stress, so you are prepared when you really need it. Some of these are mindful techniques for staying in the moment (get out of your head) anywhere that you are. Others offer a more sedentary way to connect to your body and mind.
If you are feeling unsettled in your body and sitting still is difficult- move first: exercise or dance in your living room; set a timer for 10 minutes and clean your house without stopping or take a brisk walk outdoors.
- Feel your feet pressing into the earth. Literally, draw your mind to the bottoms of your feet and feel all sides and corners: big toe, pinky toe and 2 points at the heels. You can do this anywhere!
- Sit in a chair, on the floor, on the ground, or on the seat of your car. Feel your body sitting. Focus on touch points of your body in contact with whatever you are sitting on. It may help to close your eyes to feel your body sitting.
- Do # 3 first. Once you are settled, notice that you are breathing. There are many breathing variations to try:
- Begin to slowly deepen your breath by taking slower breaths in and out through your nose. Notice the air moving in and out through your nose or how it feels in the body.
- Place a hand on your belly. As you breathe in bring the breath all the way down to the belly. Feel your hand rise with the incoming breath and your hand move inward with the exhale.
- As you inhale, count slowly to yourself until you have inhaled completely. As you exhale, match that number to the full length of your exhale. As you relax this number will get higher.
- Next, do the same thing you did in c above, but start to make your exhale longer than your inhale (exhale is the most relaxing phase of the breath).
- Hold a favorite object- a stone, small shell, piece of fabric… keep it with you or nearby (desk). Really feel it in your hand- shape, texture, size, etc..
- Try to observe your thoughts as an outsider. Take note of what’s going on, but without judging or attaching to the details. They’ll come back again—but continue to do the same “thought watching” and they’ll slowly lessen. This is known as being mindful.
- Similar to #5, try mental noting. When sitting quietly and a thought arises, label it as what it is. If you find yourself thinking about your grocery list, note that you are planning. If it’s a thought about the past, label it as a memory, then shift back to what you are doing.
- Pick a color- how many shades of it do you see in the room? Start again with another color… or use your 5 senses and find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Contract muscles then release them one part at a time. Begin with your feet and move through your body- legs, glutes, belly, arms, hands, shoulders, face and jaw. Release each muscle group and gently shake them out if needed. Don’t hold your breath.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable posture. Create a positive mental image of a place that you love to be. If possible, see it, feel it, hear it, taste it, smell it.
- Use a guided meditation often. Remember that 1 minute of this counts- but you can sit as long as you like.
Of course, healthy lifestyle habits contribute to how you feel every day.
- Try a regular Zoom or in person, yoga, gentle stretching, or Tai chi class.
- Exercise regularly- preferably outdoors and in nature
- Change habits to sleep better
- Eat a clean diet- free of processed and fatty foods
- Take time for hobbies
- Foster friendships
- Become a volunteer, watch funny movies, limit technology, get a pet, and foster compassion for yourself and others.
- Seek talk therapy when needed
You can’t change that life is stressful, but you can change how you respond to it.