Strategies for reducing stress and keeping calm during uncertain times.

Our Physical Response to Stress

During this unfamiliar and stressful time, how do we tap into our ‘calm’ and avoid defaulting to a state of anxiety and distress? If you have been a client in my office, you will have heard me refer to the  ‘Window of Tolerance’, a term coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of Psychiatry and New York Times best selling author. Psychologists and other mental health professionals have also adopted this sensorimotor perspective when working with anxiety, distress, and trauma. Within this theory is the belief that we all have three distinct states: Hyperarousal, a Window of Tolerance (Optimal), and Hypoarousal.

The Importance of a Calm Nervous System

To be in one’s ‘window of tolerance’ means to be in an optimal state where we can successfully manage stressor(s). Our nervous system is calm, yet alert, and most importantly, our brain is fully functioning. Consequently, we can respond to distress consciously and mindfully. Now this does not mean that you never experience stress; it simply means that your nervous system is regulated enough to balance the stress without tipping over into a hyper or hypo arousal state (aka the fight/flight/freeze response). In these triggered states we tend to lose connection with our body and/or lose our ability to think rationally and logically. These capacities are necessary to navigate stressful situations. This lack of function is largely related to our brain’s prefrontal cortex – a brain region responsible for higher order thinking, logical thought, planning, anticipating consequence – losing the ability to operate properly when we are outside our window of tolerance.

Respond Versus React

During chaotic and uncertain times such as these, it is more important than ever to work with our nervous system to stay regulated. Therefore, by calming or soothing our bodies we are able to respond versus react to the uncertainty of our world. When we regulate ourselves, we implicitly give others permission to do the same.

Simple Strategies to ‘Calm’ you and your Nervous System:

 

  • Engage in Structured Routine.

    During unpredictable times, rituals and structure can offer a sense of safety and security. Try maintaining a routine that will provide structure and stability to your days. This can be as simple as sticking to rituals like reading before bed or showering every morning.

  • Belly Breathing

    Also known as diaphragmatic breathing. Ground yourself using your breath whenever you notice yourself getting stressed or anxious. Try inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 7 seconds. This will help slooooooooooooooooow down your fight or flight response.

  • Listen to music that brings you warmth and comfort.

    This may include listening to  a song or album that stimulates a comforting memory.

  • Move your body!

    Simply engaging in gentle exercise can help shift the intense energy in your body. There are so many free apps and videos available now with a variety of exercise options. Notice when you get antsy and choose to interpret this as your body signaling to you that it needs to move!

  • Mindfully Scan your Body and Journal what you NoticePay attention to your jaw and shoulders. Are they clenched or holding tension? What does your stomach feel like? Are there any aches and pains that you can hold in your awareness and breathe into? Are there any emotions associated with particular sensations? Get curious.
  • Offer Yourself a Feeling of Containment.

    This can be achieved in multiple ways. For instance, putting gentle pressure on certain body parts by using your hands to gently knead your legs, feet, or arms. Try giving yourself a warm hug or place your hands on your heart. I know this may feel silly but trust me it works. Science has proven that when you intentionally offer your body comfort you release hormones like Oxytocin –  associated with warmth and loving well-being. Lastly, this is the perfect time for you to put that gravity blanket to proper use!

  • Check your Posture.

    We tend to hold anxiety in our body and naturally this will influence our posture. How we stand, sit and walk sends messages to your brain. Simply pushing our shoulders down and sitting up straight can promote self-regulation and improve our moods. The next time you feel anxious try noticing what your posture is doing. If you are really scared, you may find yourself in a defensive stance ready to ward off a potential threat. A quick acknowledgement can remind us that there is no imminent danger and we can resume a relaxed state.

Thank you for reading and I hope you found this helpful. Remember, this is a process absent of perfection. Continue to practice these strategies and any others you might stumble upon. Wishing you oodles of calm as you navigate these inevitable moments of discomfort and challenge.

References

Ogden, P. (2009, December 7). Modulation, mindfulness, and movement in the treatment of trauma-related depression. In M. Kerman (Ed.). Clinical pearls of wisdom: 21 therapists offer their key insights (1-13). New York: Norton Professional Books

Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CANorth Atlantic Books.

Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind. New York: Guilford

McMillan James is a Registered Psychologist and is working in private practice at Associates Counselling Services Inc. in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience spans academic and clinical counselling settings. She earned her BA in Psychology and her M. Ed in Counselling with a focus on Addiction and Mental Health. During her graduate studies she completed her thesis on The Phenomenological Experience of Athletic Retirement. Her areas of practice include anxiety and mood disorders, disordered eating and body image concerns, chronic pain,  trauma, and stress management. 

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