5 Tips to Manage Stress During these Uncertain Times
The world has changed a lot in the last six months. Speaking of, the world has changed a lot in the last 100 years. Change happens at a rapid rate, so quick sometimes that we as humans are slow to adapt.
Do you know what hasn’t changed much in the past few hundred thousand years, though? Our stress response. Our nervous system. Why is this important? Well we are living in a world that is vastly different to the one in which our nervous system and specifically our stress response evolved.
Flash back 200,000 years to the ancestors of modern humans, relaxing under a tree eating berries. A rustle of bushes in the peripheral vision turns out to be a tiger, looking for its next meal. In an instant the nervous system shifts, heart rate and blood pressure increase, moving blood to the muscles, pupils dilate, lungs expand.- In an instant, the body is ready to do battle, or flee for survival. If we survive the encounter, the nervous system shifts back, recovering, restoring and repairing. This dynamic shift of the nervous system is what enables us to deal with a threat, and also to recover from that threat.
Fast-forward to today. When was the last time a tiger came out of the bushes at you? Likely never. But when was the last time you opened an email that made you feel ‘stressed’? Probably this morning. Our stress response is generic. It doesn’t know the difference between the tiger and the deadline / presentation / traffic jam / argument. It responds the same, by shifting the nervous system to do battle. But when we have so many little battles to deal with, the nervous system can become ‘stuck’. Our ability to recover, restore and repair is lessened, because today there are so many little tigers lurking in emails, phone calls, social media, poor sleep, and altered environmental stimuli.
So what do we do about it? We learn how to shift our nervous system.
We can consciously direct our nervous system back to a place of quiet and calm, to mitigate the stress response. How? The easiest and fastest way is our breath. By investing a little bit of time into learning about your breath, you provide yourself with the tools and know-how to better manage and direct the ‘automatic’ functions of the body. You teach yourself how to calm the nervous system down after dealing with all the little tigers.
Below you will find 5 easy ways to shift the Nervous System
from “GO” to “SLOW”.
1. Extended Exhale
Why? Our exhale is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system.
By extending the exhale, we activate the calming branch of the nervous system.
What to do: When feeling ‘stressed’ or overwhelmed, take a moment. Count how long your inhale is, then ensure your exhale is longer. E.g. Inhale for 3, exhale for 5. Concentrate on letting your body become soft as you breathe out. Perform for 1-2 minutes.
2. Belly Breath
Why? Our diaphragm is also linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed we tend to breathe higher up in the chest - sometimes breathing with our shoulders. This drives us further into the sympathetic state.
What to do: Place both hands over the belly button. While breathing with the nose, try to gently expand the abdomen as you inhale, and let it relax as you exhale. Focus your attention on breathing into the belly, ensuring the shoulders and chest are relaxed and still. Perform 1-2 minutes.
3. Panoramic Vision
Why? Our visual system feeds into our arousal levels. When we are stressed we tend to go into a relative ‘tunnel vision’. The wider we can make our visual field, the calmer our nervous system.
What to do: Step or move your chair back from your desk or computer. Without moving your head or your eyes try to ‘zoom out’ your vision. What can I see above and below, on my peripheries. Try to see yourself in the space, rather than be focused on one point.
4. Tension Relaxation
Why? We have a tendency to accumulate and hold tension in our physical body. Often ignoring the subtle signals to move and stretch, this tension builds up and can become a source of pain
What to do: As you breathe in, lightly squeeze your fists, and as you breathe out, let them soften. With your next inhale squeeze your fists and arms, with your exhale, soften. Inhale squeeze fists, arms and shoulders, and with an exaggerated exhale really let everything go. You can do the same exercise with the lower body. Creating tension on the inhale, releasing on the exhale.
Why? Humming is effective in helping shift us into a more relaxed state via two pathways. Firstly, we automatically extend the exhale (See Exercise 1) and secondly, we stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps tell the brain about the state of the body, and assists in slowing the heart and the mind.
What to do: Take a big breath in through the nose, hold for a moment, then let out a continual humm, trying to make it last as long as possible. Try to feel the vibration in your lips and throat, focusing on the feeling of your body softening. Repeat 3 times.
The beauty of these exercises lies in the fact that they don’t require any equipment. They are free, effective and almost instantaneous in their effect, and once you become comfortable with them, no one even needs to know you are doing them. At your desk or in a meeting, or before bed, these are simple strategies that shift your nervous system out of survival mode and allow you to thrive.
Want to learn more about breath and anxiety management? Get in touch, I’d love to chat with you about your specific needs.