Not all stress is the same. In some scenarios, stress has a crucial and potentially life-saving function. Our sympathetic nervous system is primed and ready to create an acute stress response with a long list of physical actions that help us run from danger, protect our children or flee from burning buildings. This is also known as our fight-or-flight response. When there’s something to fight or take flight from, this is a very good thing.
Low-level, ongoing stress is a different story. When we experience a slow build-up of stress without cause or a release for it to lower, the effects of ongoing stress and panic are cumulative and extremely damaging. This is a very bad thing. And the longer you’re in that state (like, say, months of pandemic lockdown and isolation with no defined end in sight) then the worse the negative effects become.
On the brighter side, when we recognize stress, there are some relatively simple, foundational actions we can take to feel significantly better. Some will make us feel better almost instantly and others will give us more subtle but long-lasting relief that will build up over time. You can do them alone or, even better, one after the other, to create a fast but deeply impactful stress buster you can use whenever you need it.
1. Breathe with intention
Our connection to breathing is one of the core foundations linking physical and mental health. It can be easy to take for granted since most of the time we do it automatically about 22,000 times each day. But with intentional breathing - where we take over from our subconscious and actively control how we breathe in and out - we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system to calm our bodies and minds whenever (and wherever) we need it.
One of the nice things about breathing exercises is that we can match them to any situation. If we’re lucky enough to have the time to ourselves to work out, maintain a yoga practice, or regularly meditate, then we can match lively, energetic breathing with it.
Yet breathing intentionally can also be subtle, discreet, and done from anywhere - while driving or on public transit, before an important presentation, or as you enter a high-pressure environment. Even better, in just a few seconds intentional breathing can instigate physical changes that will almost immediately directly alter how you feel.
As you feel calmer, you become more physically relaxed. As you become more physically relaxed - you probably guessed where this is going - you feel calmer. This is a virtuous circle you can begin on your own, and reap the benefits from, anytime you feel stressed or full of panic.
● Take a moment to tell yourself you’re going to focus on your breath. If you can close your eyes, even better.
● Sit or lay down if you’re able to. Standing is fine, too.
● Notice how you feel without judging yourself. This could be “angry,” “nervous,” or “upset.”
● Breathe in deeply for a count of 4. Try to fill up the bottom of your lungs, sides, and belly.
● Hold for a count of 4.
● Release and breathe out for a count of 6. If you can do this forcefully and loudly, that’s great. If you have to be quieter, that’s just as good.
● Do this 3 times. If you’ve got time and room to do more, do as many as you feel like.
● When you’re done, notice how you feel. Don’t feel pressure to label it as “better” than how you were before. Just notice with honesty.
2. Give yourself some love
We are remarkably, sometimes detrimentally, hard on ourselves. We tend to be much harsher in our own thoughts about ourselves than we are to our friends or even strangers. There are several very valid reasons why so many of us experience feelings of low self-esteem. All of them can be alleviated by actively giving our own selves the thing we usually deny: compassion and love.
Self-compassion and self-love are not just nebulous theories we might have scoffed at in the past. They’re proactive attitudes that we can cultivate and which can lead to massive changes in how we feel, and notably, how we react to stress. Self-compassion can lower our cortisol levels, raise our resilience and help make us feel more aware in our day-to-day lives.
The next time something goes a little wrong and you feel self-criticism, instead of picturing yourself, imagine that your best friend, personal hero, or someone you admire did the exact same thing. If you make a mistake at work, it’s very possible that your immediate reaction would be to harshly, even cruelly, tell yourself how stupid and useless you are. Would you tell your best friend that they’re stupid and useless, or would you show them love, encourage them and remind them of all their amazing qualities?
To bring an element of self-love to your day, add it to the breathing exercise we laid out in #1:
● When you breathe in, tell yourself “I give myself love, compassion, and the acceptance to be just as I am.” (If you feel like it, edit this phrase anytime you want to be whatever makes you feel the most loved and accepted.)
● When you breathe out, tell yourself “I release the pressure to not love and accept myself just as I am.” (Same thing here — edit this anytime as long as you keep the core sentiment of letting go of the need to criticize or abuse yourself.)
3. Get greater with gratitude
Studies have shown that a regular gratitude practice can reduce cortisol levels by up to 23%. Long story short: feeling grateful feels good, and that shows up not just in our mood but physically in our bodies.
The key to gratitude is not to leave it up to chance or when we happen to feel like it. Just like building any healthier habit, we’ll be more successful when we have an easy-to-follow plan.
● Schedule it
Treat gratitude like any other action. Pick 3-5 minutes in your day when you have a bit of personal time to contemplate. Typically this is in the morning when you wake up or right before going to bed, but could be anytime that works best for you.
● Piggyback it
You’re more likely to start a new habit if you connect it to an existing one. Once you’ve scheduled gratitude, plan to do it right before or after an existing task. In the morning, it could be right after you brush your teeth. At night, it could be right after you put on your pajamas.
● Write or type it
The act of physically transitioning a thought into words has been shown to make the memory of the experience easier to remember. There’s a reason why people write things down to remember to do them! The same thing goes for gratitude.
This could be in a formal gratitude journal, in a note-taking app, or in a list on a piece of paper. Aim for 3-5 things you’re grateful for. Starting off, these could be anything big: your partner, your home, your health. As you get more experienced with your gratitude practice, try to drill them down into more specific or unusual daily things: the cute dog you saw on the street, the way you saw one person help another in public, or something nice that happened to you at work.
● De-stress with it
If you feel overwhelmed with stress or panic, your gratitude practice is a perfect add-on after your breathing and self-compassion exercise. If you’ve got a few extra minutes after intentional breathing, try thinking of your gratitude activity then and see what types of things pop up.
Jeremy Elder is a Toronto-based content marketer and copywriter with over a decade’s experience telling stories for some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s an expert at finding WiFi wherever you least expect it.
Jeremy Elder is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.