How do you manage stress and keep yourself grounded?
We’re all susceptible to stress of varying intensities, but “it’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” And whether it’s because of a triviality or something greater, the effect it has on your health is still the same. When we experience stressors, it causes the brain to release a hormone known as cortisol, putting you into the survival mode of fight or flight. This impairs cognition, leading to errors of judgment which often result in further emotional distress.
It’s assumed by most people that stress is a fact of life – an unavoidable circumstance we must deal with. But this is only partially true. It’s inevitable that we will experience triggering situations, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept the reactions that follow. We have much more control over our ability to respond when faced with these kinds of situations than we’re led to believe.
When we become aware of the processes that lead us into the stress state, it’s possible to regulate, and with practice, completely avoid these fear-based reactions. The most commonly accepted way of achieving this is two-fold, first focusing on the breath to calm the body, followed by making a conscious effort to bring our awareness to the interrupting thoughts that are prompting us into stress.
There is no right and wrong answer for which breathing exercise to use, the internet is full of multiple variations. The best one is the one that works for you. But one of the more accessible and easiest to achieve quick results is abdominal breathing. Simply breath in through your nose, allowing the stomach to extend. Then breath back out through the mouth. Slow your breathing right down, becoming aware of each breath. Focus only on this, eliminating all distractions. Counting the number of inhalations will keep the mind from returning to negative thoughts. Most people go to ten, but if you have a lucky number, you can use that, instead. Once you have reached your target, assess how you feel and repeat the cycle again if necessary.
When we engage with our breath, we can control what happens at the basic level of response. We’re able to root ourselves the part of the brain which promotes calm and rational thinking – the brain stem. When the breath becomes the sole focus of your attention, you cease to live your life ten minutes, a week or even year in the future. You become grounded in the present, you reduce the levels of cortisol and can think more freely.
Once you’ve achieved this state of calm, you can turn your attention to your mental chatter – negative self-talk. You want only to observe. Become mindful of your thinking and question whether the thoughts that do arise are valid or merely constructs of an over stimulated nervous system. By becoming aware of the ‘fear stories’ we tell ourselves, such as the inability to pay rent, worrying over our competency at work, we’re able to stop these rogue ideas from taking root, and the escalation into full-blown stress. This technique is more of a preventive exercise, but a valuable tool nonetheless, and recommended to use in conjunction with the breathwork to fully ground yourself back into your baseline state.