Updated: Jun 23, 2022
Increased stress and risks to wellbeing were recognised early in the pandemic (WHO 2020). Balancing work, study, relationships, family, friends, self-care, etcetera; we all have limits to the chaos we can deal with before it wears us down and wears us out.
With big external factors like a worldwide pandemic added into the mix, your ability to cope with the 'normal' stressors inevitably goes down.
Stress affects the way we function. We tend to be less resilient to disruptions, our moods fluctuate more, we get side-tracked more easily, and all those positive changes we have been intending to make feel nearly impossible.
If you don't practice ways to manage your stress, it can have some scary consequences.
High levels of cortisol associated with long-term stress can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Cortisol also increases the levels of sugars in your blood, which can increase your appetite and tell your body to store fat, leading to weight gain.
Stress equates to a lower quality of life both in the short- and the long-term, so it pays to get on top of it.
Managing stress tends to get exponentially harder the more we have going on. Often accompanied by feelings of overwhelm, the very self-care strategies that can help our stress resilience tend to be the first ones we let go of when the stressors pile up.
But that is not to say that it is impossible.
The upside is, you don’t need to deal with every single contributor to your stress to make a big difference in how you feel.
Imagine that your well-being is a scale. On one side you have your resources, and on the other side you have your stressors. As long as the scale is balanced, you are coping. When you have more resources than stressors, you feel calm and in control. However, when your stressors outweigh your resources, you start to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
The aim isn't to completely remove your stressors, the aim is to restore balance.
While there may be one or two things you can do to reduce your stressors, that can be difficult to do from a state of high stress or overwhelm.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do any time and anywhere to boost your resources and tip the scale back in your favour. Even if only for long enough to work on some more long-term solutions.
Here are six (6) exercises you can do anywhere
1. Ground yourself
When we are stressed, our minds are rarely in the present.
All kinds of different problems and situations float around our brains but we never seem to be able to focus on anything in particular or find a concrete solution to our problems. This can be mentally exhausting. In those moments, you can bring yourself some relief by focusing on the here and now.
Using your five senses to break away from the inner chaos and ground yourself in the present moment is often all it takes to calm your mind.
All you have to do is take a moment to think of (name them in your mind): five (5) things you can see, four (4) things you can feel, three (3) things you can hear, two (2) things you can smell, and one (1) thing you can taste.
After you do that, notice how you feel. Is your mind still swirling about all the things you have going on, or are you in the here and now?
2. Take a mental holiday
Where were you the last time you felt really relaxed and at peace?
Maybe it’s your norm lying on the couch at home, or somewhere more special like at the beach at sunset, or in a childhood treehouse.
Whatever the case, we can’t always physically go there whenever we are feeling stressed and need to relax. But by closing our eyes and recreating the experience in our minds through visualisation, we can simulate the effect.
Next time you’re stressed, or perhaps even now, try the following:
Think of a place where you feel secure and relaxed. When you've got a place in mind, close your eyes and picture the visual aspects first, What's directly in front of you? What's in the distance? What's the time of day? Are you with anyone? Picture as much detail as possible.
Then move on to your other senses. What you can feel?. Is there grass under you? Or sand between your toes? Can you feel a light breeze or the sun warming you?
When you’re ready, move on to smells and sounds.
Immerse yourself, as if you were physically there. Let your imagination travel to that place and let yourself absorb the relaxing and calming atmosphere that makes that place your happy place.
It may sound like a tease not actually being there, but taking the time to visualise it doesn’t mean you won’t actually go there. It can even help build your anticipation and appreciation for when you do find yourself physically back at your happy place.
Give it a try and see (imagine) for yourself!
3. Hack your brain with breathing
Stress is a very old physiological response largely directed by our midbrain. This is a really simplified explanation of a complex phenomenon, so bear with me!
When we’re stressed, other bodily functions directed by our midbrain also tend to be affected. Our breathing tends to be shallower, our heart rate faster, and blood flow and oxygen are redirected away from our gastrointestinal system which can wreak havoc on our digestion.
Breathing is one of the few of these bodily functions that we have conscious control over, and as a result, can act as a shortcut to hack how our body is dealing with stress.
By practicing deep breathing (straight spine, open chest, breath into your belly), you increase the oxygen supply to the brain while activating your parasympathetic nervous system - the part of your nervous system that is responsible for calming you down.
Moreover, by concentrating your attention on your breathing, you are directing your thoughts away from your jumble of worries and focusing on the here and now.
My favourite breathing technique is 3:6:10. 3 seconds in, 6 seconds out, 10 times.
Try giving it a go.
First, make sure you’re not slouched forward and put your hand on your belly. Next, take a deep breath in through your nose while you count to 3. As you do this, concentrate on the air coming in, filling your lungs and belly and expanding them.
Now, slowly breathe back out through your mouth like you're blowing through a straw as you count to 6. Notice how your lungs feel as they relax.
Repeat this 10 times, counting your breaths as you go and focusing on the air flowing in and out. By the time you get halfway, you should start to notice yourself more alert, in control of your thoughts, and maybe even calm.
4. KISS meditation
There are many ways to meditate. From everything you need to know in a sentence, to complex and steeped in ritual and tradition.
Fortunately, most of the scientific benefits of meditation relate to the simplest forms, which is why I prefer to stick to the "keep it simple, silly" (KISS) principle for meditation.
Mediation can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure and reduce the body’s production of stress hormones. They can improve your memory, your concentration and even productivity.
Here is a KISS meditation technique you can try whenever you feel stressed.
Find a comfortable sitting position and set a 5-minute timer.
Close your eyes and place your hand over your legs, face up. Breathe naturally. Focus on your breath, without trying to control it. Notice your body as you breathe; your chest, your shoulders, your belly, etc.
Maintain your focus on your breathing, again, without trying to force or control it. Let it flow naturally. If your mind begins to wander, become aware of this and turn your focus back to your breathing.
You have plenty of time to think later. For now, your only job is to focus on your breath, and gently bring your attention back to your breath each time it wanders.
That's it. KISS meditation. It does not get simpler than that.
Contrary to popular misconception, you are not failing at meditation if your mind keeps wandering. Meditation is the practice of noticing your mind wandering, and bringing it back to focus on the thing you want it to focus on.
You will not solve the world’s problems in the next 5 minutes of being caught in the vortex of your own stress, so give yourself permission and to take 5 and practice regaining control of where your thoughts are directed.
5. Use progressive muscle relaxation
When you’re stressed, one of the first things you’ll notice is how tense your muscles become. It can be extremely uncomfortable and you’ll start to feel your body becoming stiff. You might eventually get used to the tension but it doesn’t mean that it’s over. This can lead to localized muscle pains in some parts of your body. Here is where you have to practice relaxing your muscles to release the tension.
The idea is to be conscious of the tension in each part of your body and be aware of where you feel stiff and tense. First, breathe in and tense up the first group of muscles. Once you breathe in and tense up, count to 4. Then, as you breathe out, completely relax that group of muscles. Not gradually, but completely relax them. This makes the muscles loosen up and get rid of the stiffness. After completing this exercise with the first group, move on to the next.
As you work your way up, you’ll start to become aware of where you feel the most tension. Once you’ve gone through each group of muscles, feel if there are any that still feel a little stiff and repeat the exercise. We recommend starting with your toes and working your way up your body, finishing with your neck, jaw, and facial muscles.
This practice is often referred to as ‘progressive muscle relaxation' and can be particularly useful to do in bed if stress has started affecting your sleep.
With practice, you’ll notice when your body begins to tense up and relaxing your muscles will be a thing of ease.
6. Laugh – just not at yourself!
Thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are all interconnected.
The way we think affects the way we feel and behave, the way we feel affects the way that we think and behave, and the way we behave affects the way we think and feel.
We can use this to our advantage, much like we do with breathing techniques, to change our behaviour in a way that is likely to have a knock-on effect, changing the way we think and feel.
When you are feeling overwhelmed, taking a moment to laugh at your situation, assuming it's not life-threatening, can be surprisingly beneficial.
If you lean into laughter and make sure to laugh easily, can set of a positive feedback loop with your thoughts and feelings and dramatically improve your mood.
Here's the thing though: Many of us use self-deprecation (laughing at ourselves) as a humorous outlet. While that can often help to make us feel better in the short term, if it becomes a habit, that type of negative self-talk can start to worm its way into your self-beliefs. If you start thinking it's you that is ridiculous, and not your situation, over time, you will start to erode your self-confidence, which is actually one of your resources that helps keep you balanced.
Be careful what you say, because your subconscious is listening.
Laugh – just not at yourself.
Laughter produces endorphins which in turn reduce levels of adrenaline and cortisol, lifting your mood. Laughing is also another form of breathing that can disrupt the shallow breathing associated with stress. When you laugh you are taking in more oxygen and spend more time exhaling, activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you to feel more relaxed.
If you were already familiar the all the tips in this article, please take a moment to go back and ask yourself honestly if you are using all of these strategies to the best of your ability.
If you are doing all of these things and still feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to look for resources outside of yourself and ask for help.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it can often compound and get the better of us. While we can’t avoid stress altogether, it might be easier than you think to come back from feeling overwhelmed. All it takes is a little practice every day to start to restore the balance.
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