Self-Care For Stress Management
Between pandemic stress and political upheaval, the past year has been chaotic for many. As a therapist and life coach, I see this firsthand every day. Many of my career and life-coaching clients, in both the U.S. and other countries, have discussed feeling more stressed and anxious overall. This has been a time of many uncertainties, with some businesses laying off workers or closing altogether, people losing family members to COVID, and parents navigating work-from-home situations while dealing with their young children’s remote schooling.
Our body’s stress response exists to address an imminent threat. This so-called fight-or-flight response works great when there is an immediate danger, such as a bear chasing you. It triggers a release of hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, in our body and sends blood to our extremities so that we can either run away from the bear—or fight it (though I don’t typically recommend fighting bears).
However, when the stress is long-term, our bodies stay in high gear and our cortisol levels stay elevated, causing negative chronic effects. Studies have found that long-term is a contributing factor in conditions including heart disease and cancer.
Below are a few tips for stress management. I encourage you to practice these techniques before you are super-stressed. It’s harder to use a new skill for the first time if you’re already in an intense situation and much easier if you’ve been rehearsing the skill before you really need it.
1. Deep Breathing
We tend to be a nation of chest-breathers in our fast-paced society. When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes even more rapid and shallow. The stress response that sends oxygen to our extremities takes it away from our brain. This is why people don’t think as clearly when they’re overly stressed.
Take a minute to do several slow, deep breaths. By breathing in air all the way down to your abdomen, you’ll literally bring in more oxygen to your body—including your brain.
Put your hand on your belly and slowly inhale through your nose to a count of four, then exhale just as slowly through your mouth, again to a count of four. If you ‘re breathing all the way to your abdomen instead of your chest, your belly should push your hand out as you inhale. Repeat this slow breath two more times to feel immediately more centered and grounded.
Tip: You can do this anywhere, even in traffic–you’ll notice a difference.
This one is the most important strategy on this list. Without good sleep, the rest of these tips won’t help much. During sleep, your body restores and repairs itself. Protecting your sleep and going to bed at a reasonable time is a great way to start your stress management journey. Let your body cycle through to the deep stages of sleep, where the magic happens.
If you have trouble falling asleep, start a consistent bedtime routine (like fixing a cup of tea, reading from a book, or taking a warm bath) about an hour before bedtime and try to keep the same bedtime.
When they’re starting out, some of my clients even set an alarm on their phone to remind them to begin their nighttime routine. In time, your body will automatically begin to wind down at a certain time—it’s like muscle memory.
Your body will thank you for doing this. If you’ve given yourself adequate time to recharge, you’ll start out the next day feeling refreshed and energized.
Many of my clients are new to meditation for stress management when I begin working with them, but this strategy is life-changing. Meditation is simply the act of being present in the moment and resetting your body from a state of stress to one of relaxation.
Think about it–the present moment is where all the good stuff in your life happens, so you want to be there as much as possible. If you catch yourself worrying about something else, it’s a red flag that you’re in the past or future rather than the present moment (unless that bear is chasing you, and then you have bigger concerns to worry about). Meditating can train your brain to stay in the present moment.
And that’s not all. If you have issues with sleeping, such as insomnia or frequent waking, you can also use meditation techniques at bedtime to help you relax so that you go into deeper stages of sleep.
Meditation doesn’t need to be done sitting cross-legged on a special cushion. You can meditate while walking, washing dishes, or doing yoga. Five or10 minutes is all you need, though some of my clients prefer to do it first thing in the morning and again at night before bed.
There are some fascinating MRI research studies showing the impact of meditation on the brain. If you prefer music or guided meditation, numerous free apps such as Insight Timer or Calm are available, and YouTube has free meditations on every subject imaginable.
I’m a personal fan of binaural beat meditations, designed to bring your brain into different wavelengths such as theta or gamma. Although it’s not free, I use Brainsync, which I feel is worth the money.
Bonus Stress Management Tip: Laughter
Laughter really is the best medicine. It has been shown to release your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, which act as natural painkillers and antidepressants.
Spend time at night watching your favorite TV or movie comedy (never watch the news before bedtime!) or talk to some funny friends or family members. Keeping your sense of humor even when times are tough can help shift your perspective and find silver linings within difficult situations.
Dark humor can work too—I’ve worked with some first responders who said it was the only thing that prevented them from having a total breakdown.
Takeaway: Stress Management is Essential to a Healthy Life
Experiment with these techniques and see what works best for you. Keep in mind that self-care and stress management are essential for living a healthy life. It’s like the flight attendant telling you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first—by caring for yourself, you have more to give the world around you.
During stressful times, it’s more important than ever to protect your emotional and mental well-being. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, breathe, sleep, meditate, and laugh your way to a better place. Your loved ones will thank you.
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