According to Psychology Today, Americans just broke a new record for anxiety and stress. If you’re into breaking records, that’s very exciting. For the rest of us, it may just be a confirmation that we’re not alone in dealing with that near constant tightness in the chest and knot in the stomach.
When the world goes topsy turvy and a swirling atmosphere of division, outrage and chaos becomes more pervasive, it deepens our stress and can affect us at at every level of our lives.
It can disturb our sleep, eating habits, and behaviors. We can start to define ourselves by our relationship to unfolding events. We’re protesters! We’re victims of a rigged system! We’re builders of a new, more just society!
It’s exhausting, numbing, and overwhelming. And, frankly, it’s dehumanizing.
While it’s true that adopting a daily meditation or yoga practice and exercising several times a week and watching your diet and drinking 10 glasses of water per day and cutting down on coffee and starting a garden will all help reduce stress. . .sometimes there’s just not space in the day for all of that.
Here are five efficient tools I’ve found useful in destressing, remembering who I am beyond the news of the day, opening up a bit of space, and even reclaiming my humanity. They don’t take much time and can be done pretty much anywhere. Hope you find them useful:
Allow Space For Beauty
Last week, I was walking back from a meeting awash in a whirlpool of thoughts. Politics, the latest madness out of Washington, a client who was behind on payments, needing to clean my car, making time to call my congress people. It all weighed on me, making my head pound.
It all felt very dark.
Then a splash of color invaded my thoughts. I looked up to see an explosion of pink blossoms on the tree branches just over my head. It took my breath away.
I stopped and looked up, allowing the color and everything it represented to wash over me.
These weren’t just blossoms. They were symbols of rebirth. Of winter turning into spring. They were f*(ing beautiful!
Noticing that beauty opened up a bit of space and I felt stress leave my body.
When we’re wrapped up in strategizing, problem solving, getting from one place to another, and always doing, it makes it difficult for beauty to find its way in. Creating space, even a crack of a hint of an opening, for the beauty hiding in plain sight all around us can make a difference, helping us connect with the world in a different way.
Total time needed: 30 seconds.
When we’re stressed, our breathing gets screwed up. We may start breathing into the chest, which triggers the body’s fight or flight response and releases a ton of cortisol into the body. When released over extended periods, cortisol is associated with depressed immune response, decreased cognitive function, and weight gain.
We may also stop breathing altogether, waiting for up to a minute between breaths. This also triggers the fight or flight response, compounding the stress. In other words: we get stressed, start breathing all wonky, and trigger a response that increases the stress. It’s a negative feedback loop.
Luckily, taking a few conscious breaths can interrupt the loop.
I recommend trying The Box Breath, a simple technique that lets the brain know that the body is safe. They teach it to Navy SEALS and astronauts, so there’s probably something to it. Here’s how it works:
Inhale to the belly for a count of four.
Hold for a count of four.
Exhale for a count of four.
Hold for a count of four.
Here’s a video of me demonstrating the technique.
Repeat 5 times. Do this a few times a day, and anytime you start to feel stressed, and you’ll see a shift in your ability to handle anxiety.
Total time needed: 2 minutes.
If you, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time at the computer, the lack of movement may be contributing to a heightened state of anxiety or stress. Our bodies simply aren’t built to sit for extended periods of time; they interpret that stillness as being ‘trapped.’ Yes, we’re all supposed to exercise at least 20 minutes a day and all that. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then we feel bad and get more stressed.
Integrating movement throughout the day can help. Here are some ideas:
Do 20 jumping jacks twice an hour.
Do squats while on conference calls.
Go for a 20 minute walk at some point during the day.
Spontaneous dance party!
Changing the position of the body and getting the blood flowing a bit lets the brain know that you’re not trapped. And simply walking has been shown to increase balance and communication between the left and right sides of the brain!
Total time needed: 30 seconds to 20 minutes.
Human connection supports the release of stress by flooding the body with oxytocin, the hormone largely responsible for feelings of empathy and well-being. Here’s the catch: the connections must be genuine and go beyond the activity-based, tactical level.
Collaborating with people on a project won’t produce a deep connection (though it is fun).
Protesting together won’t do it, either.
Nor will sharing a meal, playing a game together, or watching TV together.
The connections we’re after exist at a more human level; an exchange of dreams, fears, passions, and curiosities. Whenever we share and listen to each other’s stories about the challenges and adventures of being human, we connect in a way that reminds us of our joint humanity. Suddenly we’re more than the accumulated events and stresses of the day.
Stress and anxiety have a tendency to make us feel isolated and alone. Human connection mitigates that effect.
Total time needed: 1 minute to a lifetime.
Research shows that time in nature reduces stress, helps reduce blood pressure, leads to a reduction in muscle tension, promotes a sense of connection, and regulates the heart rate. That’s nice. And if you live in a place like Los Angeles, nature can feel a bit far away. Here are some places in LA where you can get a quick hit of nature:
Griffith Park. . .my favorite spot is a magical pine ‘forest’ about a ten minute walk from the gate at the top of Commonwealth Avenue in Los Feliz.
Echo Park Lake
Vista Hermosa Park (this is an amazing gem hidden in plain sight)
Getting a few plants for your office is great, too.
The point isn’t to go out and hug a bunch of trees (though I’m certainty a fan of that), but rather to build in a little time to consciously connect with nature.
Total time needed: 20 minutes to several hours.
Total time needed to do all of these in the space of a day: 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
Stress is more than an inconvenience. It impact overall health, the quality of relationships, self-esteem, and more. And it can make you feel like you’re not in control of your body or your destiny.
Try one or more of these. Take control, destress, let me know how it goes!