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3 Stress Management Techniques for Chaotic Times
Self-Care for Stress Management
Between COVID-19 and political upheaval, the past year has been chaotic for many. Many of my career and life-coaching clients, even those in other countries, have discussed feeling more stressed and anxious overall. There have been 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 trying not to lose their minds due to their young children’s school-from-home situations.
The stress response in our body exists to address an imminent threat (aka the fight-or-flight response). This response is great when there is an immediate issue, such as a bear chasing you. It causes a release of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, in our body and sends the 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 chronic or long-term, our bodies stay in high-gear and cortisol levels stay elevated in our body which can cause negative long-term effects. Long-term stress has been identified in studies as a contributing factor in everything from heart disease to cancers.
Below are a few tips for stress management and, if at all possible, I encourage you to practice these things 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 already been using 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 stressed, our breathing becomes even more rapid and shallow. Again, the stress response causes blood to go to our extremities, thus away from our brain. This is why people don’t think as clearly when they’re overly stressed.
Taking a minute to do several slow, deep breaths where you breathe in air all the way down to your abdomen, literally bringing in more oxygen to your body—including your brain.
Try putting your hand on your belly and slowly inhale through your nose to a count of 4, then exhale just as slowly through your mouth to a count of 4. Your belly should push your hand out as you inhale if you are breathing all the way to your abdomen instead of your chest. Repeat this slow breath two more times to feel immediately more centered and grounded.
Tip: You can do this anywhere, even in traffic, and will notice a difference.
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This one is actually the most important on the whole list. If you don’t have good sleep, the rest of this list won’t matter. Sleep is the period when your body restores and repairs itself. If you start with only one thing as far as stress management, start with protecting your sleep and going to bed at a reasonable time so that your body can cycle through to the deep stages of sleep which is where the magic happens.
If you have difficulty falling asleep, start a consistent bedtime routine (a cup of tea, reading from a book, warm bath, etc) about an hour prior to your desired bedtime and keep that bedtime the same if possible.
Some of my clients even set an alarm on their phone, in the beginning, to remind them to start 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 and as a bonus, you’ll start out the next day feeling refreshed and energized if you’ve given yourself adequate time to recharge.
Many of my clients are new to meditation when I begin working with them, but this one is life-changing. Meditation is simply the act of being present in the moment and resets your body from a state of stress to one of relaxation.
If you think about it, the present moment is where all the good stuff in your life happens anyway, so you want to be there as much as possible. If you catch yourself worrying about something, it’s a red flag that you’re in the past or future rather than the present moment (unless a bear is chasing you and then you have bigger concerns to worry about). Meditating helps you to train your brain to stay in the present moment.
Additionally, if you have issues with sleeping, such as insomnia or frequent waking, you can also use meditation 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. 5-10 minutes is all you need, though some of my clients prefer to do it first thing in the morning and also at night before bed.
MRI’s have shown the impact of meditation on the brain and there are some fascinating research studies on this. If you prefer music or guided meditation, there are numerous free apps available such as Insight Timer or Calm, and YouTube has free meditations on every subject available.
I’m a personal fan of binaural beat meditations, designed to bring your brain into different wavelengths such as theta or gamma, and I use Brainsync which is not free but worth the money in my opinion.
Bonus Stress Management Tip: Laughter
Laughter really is the best medicine and has been shown to release your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, which act as natural pain killers and antidepressants.
Spend time at night watching your favorite comedy series or movie (and never the news before bed!) or talk to some funny friends or family members. Try to keep your sense of humor even when times are tough and it can help shift your perspective to find silver linings of 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.
In Summary: Stress Management is Essential to a Healthy Life
Play around 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, go breathe, sleep, meditate, and laugh your way to a better place. Your loved ones will thank you.
Dr. Kristi Helvig, Ph.D., LP, BCC is both a licensed psychologist and a board-certified coach, and she specializes in career and executive coaching. She can help you get clarity, overcome old obstacles, and climb the mountain to success — no matter how you define it.
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