Your body is tight. You can’t focus. You keep obsessively checking facebook or twitter to direct your mind, or feel the need to constantly snack on something.
You are stressed.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s work, social drama, or world-stress. Sometimes you get to the point where you just lock down. You are no longer stressed-but-functioning, you are short circuited.
At times like this, it’s good to have a pocketful of techniques available to derail the runaway stress train, and give yourself a few minutes of peace.
These techniques are not solutions. They won’t solve the underlying problem (or more likely, the stack of problems that have accumulated). They won’t fix your life. But they will allow you to hit the pause button while you get yourself together.
Even five minutes of relief from the raging stress battle can be enough to allow you to step back and get perspective, make a plan, and come back in control rather than being reactive.
Sometimes we just need a few minutes.
This is the first of three articles on how to relieve stress: Emergency Rescue, Deep Work, and Maintenance.
Emergency Rescue is for the times when you need an emotional intervention to just to be able to function.
Deep Work is for digging out the issues that are contributing to your stress stack, and solving them.
Maintenance are daily actions that help you maintain good calmness-health.
Use these Emergency Rescue techniques when you find yourself shutting down from stress and anxiety. They won’t fix the underlying problems (you need Deep Work techniques for that), but they will allow you to be the master of your mind again. They function as an intervention, to break you out of the useless panic cycle.
They put you back in charge of your physical responses.
Panic and anxiety are like the warning lights on your car. They tell you that something is critically wrong and needs attended to. Deep Work is like taking your car to the shop and fixing the problem, but Emergency Rescue are the coping tools that keep you going until you can get the problems fixed.
Breathing fast or shallowly is one of the first responses when you start to panic. By slowing and deepening your breathing, you dramatically slow down your system while simultaneously flooding your brain with oxygen. This is especially useful for when you need to think clearly and can’t.
Inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold empty for 4. As it gets easy to do, extend to a count of 5, then 6, working your way up as it’s comfortable. Do this for five minutes with your eyes closed.
Put on noise canceling headphones with soothing music or nature sounds, and a sleep mask
Lay down or lean back in your chair for five minutes. If your mind is racing, combine it with the square breathing.
The combination of shutting down all visual stimuli, while giving yourself something relaxing to focus on, allows your mind to calm down. The square breathing further gives your brain a task to focus on.
Exercise to work out stress hormones
Your body is wired to respond to physical and immediate dangers. Things that are trying to hurt you or kill you. So when you get super stressed, you release the hormones necessary to either fight off your attacker or to run away.
But those chemicals are not designed to stay in your muscles. They are supposed to get used up and flushed out.
If you don’t do something physical to work those chemicals out of your muscles, you end up tight and tense and feeling icky.
While stretches help, doing something aerobic is much more effective. Even five minutes of high-energy activity will leave you feeling relaxed and relieved.
Using a rebounder, jumping rope (or jumping without the rope), dancing for one song, or doing jumping jacks, are quick ways to work the stress hormones out of your muscles.
Lay on the floor and put your legs up against a wall
When you change the way your blood flows, it surprises your body and pops you out of the mental loop that you are stuck in. It forces your brain to focus its attention to evaluating this new situation and making sure it is safe.
Lay down against a wall and extend your legs against the wall above you. Alternatively you can lay down on a couch and put your legs up over the top.
As you lay there and focus on your breathing, you will find your mind calming down. You might not forget about your worries, but the position helps you step back and not be in the center of the emotional vortex.
Focus on each of your senses
This is a grounding exercise that is very useful for popping your monkey mind out of its loop and refocusing it. When you are filled with anxiety or panic, the imagination part of your brain starts to take charge, spinning and embroidering fanciful nightmares of peril and dangers. The more you dwell on it, the more real it becomes to you. If you can step back out and refocus on what it is real, you can more easily see your thoughts as exactly that. Thoughts, possibilities, councils, and musings, but not concrete reality.
Sit quietly and focus on your surroundings.
Out loud, list three things that you can see. It doesn’t matter what they are, just pick three things, truly look at them, and then list them aloud and describe them.
Next list three things that you can hear.
Then three things that you can smell.
Finally list three things you can feel via your skin.
Since you probably aren’t eating anything right now, and licking random things around you not be wise, we’ll omit taste from the senses you are using to ground yourself.
As you do this exercise more often, you will be able to do it anywhere, whispering the noticed elements under your breath.
The tactile experience of forming the words helps you calm down and focus your observations, whereas just thinking the words lets your brain continue jumping about. So make sure to physically say them, even if you being very quiet.
This rescue remedy is fantastically useful, as it is always available.
Clench and relax each muscle group
This is a different form of grounding.
Clench your toes for a long deep breath, then release them.
On the next breath, do your whole foot.
On the next, clench your calves.
Then your thighs.
Slowly work your way up your body, taking special care to fully relax each part of your body with an exhale, after tightening it.
When you get to your head, put extra effort into relaxing your face. If your face is tense, there will be hidden tenseness in the whole rest of your body. The more you can relax your face, the more the rest of you will let go and ease.
Each of these techniques can give you immediate, palpable relief from stress overwhelm, in under five minutes. They work in different ways, so sometimes one will be more useful than another. Also different techniques will work better for different people. I recommend you try them all out, so you learn which ones feel most effective and satisfying to you.
Once you are no longer in crisis mode, you can explore the Deep Work techniques that can heal the underlying stress-creating issues.