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Most people experience stress from time to time. Some more than others. Our bodies respond to stress in several different ways. Often we sweat more, breathing can become difficult, heart begins to race. As these bodily responses occur they can lead to a sense of being out of control, a heightened feeling of discomfort, and along with stress usually comes hyper awareness. Each of these feelings alone or when combined with the others does nothing to alleviate the stress response but can definitely increase it.
Stress can occur at any time and the triggers are different for every person. There are varying degrees of stress responses and some can lead to full blown panic attacks. Stress response is very much a fear response in the body. This is because stress is actually fear that is trapped in the body and unable to dissipate.
It is important to remember that when we are in a stress response our awareness can be heightened while, but often we become flooded and are unable to think clearly and logically. Thus when we are really stressed making big life decisions is not always in our best interest.
The following are some concrete in the moment tips to help bring your nervous system to a calmer place. These exercises help with the stress feeling as it is happening, however, because stress stems from fear stuck in the body, therapy is recommended to help with ongoing stress. Therapy can help you find the root of the fear and dissipate it.
So in a moment of stress/fear response what do we do?
(1) The first thing is to breathe. Because we often respond to stress with shallow breathing, we can feel like we are not getting enough air. When we feel like we are not getting enough air we try to inhale more deeply (this can occur completely unconsciously, but when we do it consciously we are usually getting a bit afraid that we can’t breathe). When this happens we often do not exhale enough and we actually can begin to gasp for breath. This is how hyperventilation occurs.
So exhaling is a key factor here. Slow deep breathes in and even slower exhalations until all the air is pushed from the lungs. Then repeat.
(2) Humming. It can be a tune or a long droning hum. The vibration of humming coupled with the way the action can regulate your breathing helps to soothe the nervous system.
(3) Activating your containment muscles. The muscles that run up and down the sides of your body can help you calm when they are activated. You can do this by simply putting your hands on the outside of your thighs just above your knees. Now press your knees out and your hands in. This action coupled with regulated breathing can assist in soothing you. It is also something you can do just about anywhere that you are sitting down.
(4) If you are alone or with someone you trust you can do a deeper expression of this practice. Sit with your back against something solid (a wall, a couch or chair), bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Place your hands so that your fingertips are centered on the crown of your head, elbows bent and outside of your knees. Now push your knees out and your elbows in. This will also activate your “containment” muscles, while allowing your body to feel supported.
When we are stressed it is not unusual to feel outside of ones self. Holding the crown of your head in this manner can assist in helping you feel more grounded.
(5) If you are alone or with someone you feel safe with lying on your back with your legs up a wall in an “L” shape can be very comforting. Be certain your bottom and thighs are flush with the wall and your back is flat on the floor. Focus on breathing (and exhaling completely) while you do this. Do this until you feel yourself relax.
(6)The last technique I want to share with you is a systematic tightening and relaxing of muscles. Beginning with your feet, tighten all your muscles (your toes, feet and ankles), hold for a count of three then release. Next focus on your calves. Tighten for a count of three then relax. Move up the body, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, back/chest, arms and even face. Holding each for a count of three. By the time you reach your face your body should feel more relaxed overall.
In our busy lives situations are bound to arise that cause you stress. It is learning to deal with these situations that allow us to move through the world in a much more comfortable way. I hope that these techniques will help to soothe you in those inevitable moments of stress we all experience.
Emily Morrison is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Sonoma County California. She has a private practice in downtown Santa Rosa.