Sleepless nights. Chest tightening. Heart pounding. Mind racing. These are just a few of the symptoms of stress that go hand and hand with the human experience. While a certain level of stress is natural, too much can pose a threat to our wellbeing if gone unchecked. When we get stuck in a stress loop it can influence our levels of stress hormones as well as our blood pressure, says Los Angeles-based certified EFT practitioner and WellSet Instructor Amy Piper. “This affects our immune system, digestion, reproductive systems, sleep, and much more.”
Before you start stressing about stress, let’s look at some ways to get out of the panic zone quickly and shift away from our stress response without having to take a 10-day trip to Tahiti.1. Reframe Stress
Instead of fighting stress, start by changing the way you perceive and work with it. “We've come to know stress as negative when it is actually natural and necessary for growth, development and overall vitality,” says holistic health practitioner and WellSet Instructor Janet DeHart.
This point of view is supported by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her TED Talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend (which currently has a telling 29M+ views). Learning to perceive stress responses as helpful—for example, a pounding heart translates as a healthy heart that is pumping more oxygen to your brain—allows us to show appreciation and understanding, versus spiraling into more stress.
Breath is one of our most undervalued resources. We are all doing it, otherwise we wouldn't be here, but when we are stressed out, we start to breathe in shallow, short gasps. Steady and intentional breathing can help regulate our nervous system and emotions, reduce stress and anxiety. Try this 5-3/7-3 breath practice—or any number of WellSet’s guided breathwork classes:
Breathe in through your nose for 5 counts. Hold for three. Breathe out through the nose for 7 counts. Hold for 3 counts. Repeat for several minutes. For an extra release, breathe out through the mouth, making a “woosh” sound. Pause there for a moment, then repeat the cycle.
Sometimes just pausing what we are doing and naming what is happening can be a helpful step to calming down. Take in your surroundings. Name five things that you see. Remind yourself that you are safe. If you’re in a place where you can do so, do this vocally. Keep going until you feel a baseline of calm.4. Write it Down
Grab whatever materials are closest—a notebook, a notepad, a post it, a paper towel—and write. Scribble down miscellaneous, seemingly nonsensical words. What is happening? What are you feeling? Get observant, get curious, get honest, get mad, get sad, get accusatory. Don’t censor or judge yourself in any way. Just let your thoughts flow. Putting pen to paper is informative and a potent tool for coming back to center. Need more structure to your doodling? Check out these therapist-guided journaling prompts.5. Tap it Out
Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), aka tapping, manages stress and anxiety by communicating with nonverbal parts of the brain. According to Piper, “EFT works to decrease and eliminate stress by shutting down the amygdala's response to a specific issue, problem, or memory. We are tapping on acupressure points to communicate with nonverbal parts of the brain that control the fight or flight stress response.” It’s easy to learn and once you have the basics down, even a short session can be calming. For a quick fix or daily tap, Piper recommends from 5-15 minutes to reduce general stress, anxiety, anger, frustration and overwhelm.6. Get Some Sleep
The more well-rested we are, the more relaxed our nervous systems are and, therefore, the more equipped we are to navigate potentially stressful situations. That means not only that we become less reactive, but also that we are potentially less likely to make mistakes or panic when we slip up. If deep sleep, or even falling asleep, is especially challenging when you’re stressed, Yoga Nidra or “the yoga of sleep” can help you prepare for a better night’s rest.7. Laugh!
Laughter not only makes you feel good, but reduces unhealthy cortisol levels spiked by stress. According to Seattle-based internist Dr. Carrie A. Horwitch, a certified Laughter Leader, who is trained to lead therapeutic laughter in groups, in addition to the cortisol effect, laughter also improves oxidative stress. So save those memes that have you LOL’ing or just belt out a crazy giggle or maniacal cackle, even if you have to fake it. You’ll raise your endorphin levels and lower your cortisol. Plus, laughter is free and counts as exercise.
8. Take a Dip
Hydrotherapy has a variety of health benefits, depending on the type of water and temperature. Cold water activates the parasympathetic nervous system and warm water helps lower stress hormones. Both help the body release endorphins. So, head to the nearest body of natural water to swim, do a cannonball into the neighbor’s pool, find a local float tank or treat yourself to a non-performative self-care bath. Another water-related hack: When you’re experiencing stress, drink a glass of water. This simple, focused action can work wonders to help you recenter and reprogram.9. Move Yourself
Notice we didn’t say “exercise.” This is about moving and grooving in whatever way you can. Do jumping jacks or shake like a wet dog coming in from the rain. Be silly! If that’s not accessible (or workplace appropriate), sit in a chair or lie on the couch and move what you can. Don’t forget your jaw, your tongue and your eyes. There’s so much tension in these spots. Add some noise to it by singing along to a playlist. Dancing and other forms of conscious movement are proven to boost endorphins which means, yep, less stress.
We know, we know! The “m” word. Before you skip to number 11, hear this: You don’t have to sit on a cushion with a straight back, or watch your thoughts, or try not to think, to experience the benefits of meditation. Dig around until you find something that works for you. Mindful cooking, gardening and hiking all count! And when you’re ready to expand your practice, WellSet's mindfulness classes are a great place to start.11. Go Outside
Oh nature! Mother Earth is literally grounding. So look no further. Lie down on some grass or frolic on the forest floor. Hug a tree or pull some weeds. Stare at the clouds, gaze at a sunset. Go for a device-free stroll. Breathe in the oxygen and talk to the birds. Live in a city? Set up some window boxes, grow some flowering plants (and talk to them, too). Join a community garden, take an herbalism course. Be the good kind of weird and hug a tree.12. Reach Out
It can be tempting to hide out when we’re feeling anxious. While getting quiet and curious about your stress has its benefits, it’s also good to know when to phone a friend. Save your closest peeps as “favorites” in your phone, or create a group thread where you ping each other with silly memes, songs, quotes, jokes or whatever shared references make you feel good. Even if you don’t feel like sharing much, it’s reassuring to know that someone is listening on the other line.13. Practice Gratitude
When in doubt, give thanks. According to the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA “gratitude changes the neural structures in the brain, and makes us feel happier and more content.” Expressing gratitude, even in your most stressed out moments, incites the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial mood-enhancing neurotransmitters that are responsible for our emotions. Additionally, according to an article published in Positive Psychology, “studies show that the hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning, get activated with feelings of gratitude.”
Add to that a marked reduction in the level of—yes, you guessed it—cortisol and better cardiovascular function in people with a regular gratitude practice. This can take many forms, but starts with two words: thank you. Then get specific. Include the people, plants, and animals and elements around you. And always remember to give thanks for yourself.
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