5 ways to create a buffer to stress in the lead up to Christmas
It was a pleasure to chat with Paul Gifney on NLive Radio about managing our stress as Christmas approaches (tune in Sunday 20th Dec 8-10pm, I'm on from 9 with some tips for the festive season, and he's got a great guest to talk about poetry and mental health before me).
It's not been an easy year - and there doesn't seem to be a lot of let up. So, I thought some stress-busting tips were in order:
Firstly, if you like to meditate:
1. Mindful deep breathing
Physiologically our levels of anxiety are regulated by two internal systems the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). As we breathe in blood is drawn to the lungs and the heart responds to this deficit (using the SNS) by pumping more around the body. As we exhale, the PNS slows the heart down because the deficit is reduced. However, under stress, breathing becomes shallow and erratic which means that both systems are trying to work but find it harder to reach equilibrium. However, the act of slow, relaxed, deep breathing has the added effect of activating the “slow adapting pulmonary stretch receptors” (SARs) which inhibit the working of the SNS so it doesn’t increase the pumping of the heart muscle. Therefore, slow, deep breathing is effective in inducing calm.
Meditation or simply focused deep breathing (in for a count of 4 through the nose, hold for 2, and out through the mouth for a count of 6) is recommended to build up internal resilience – with the very act of deep breathing promoting positive physiological changes in times of stress.
However, if, like me you prefer a guide track (I find it helps to focus when I'm being given a structure) As my gift to you, access my guided meditations to support you:
They address a number of issues such as self-confidence, and creative inspiration.
2. The body scan
Start with some deep breaths to centre yourself – breathe in for 3, hold for 2 and out for 5. As you do this, if other thoughts pop by, either write them down if they are important, or acknowledge them and let them pass – return to your breathing.
Think that a warm ray of sun is relaxing your feet. Repeat the words “breathe and relax” as you stretch then relax your feet – think about how your feet feel right here and now; the ray moves and warms your legs again think “breathe and relax” as you stretch and relax your legs – focus on how your legs feel. Next think about your hips, and then torso – again think “breathe and relax” and enjoy the sensation of that warm relaxation – identify how your hips and your torso feel when they are relaxed; move the warmth to your shoulders, and down your arms to the tips of your fingers – again think about how they feel. Think “breathe and relax” and finally focus on your neck and the top of your head – think “breathe and relax” then continue to enjoy breathing calmly.
The body scan can help you recognise when there is tension in your body and once you recognise it, you can work on identifying the stressor and trying to remove or minimise it.
I find that using a body scan along with reflecting on where I hold certain emotions such as anger, or fear, or confidence, or love can help me on a day to day basis. As an example, I feel uncertainty in my stomach, and confidence in my head - so even on a simple trip to the shop, unless I feel it in my mind that I want to buy something, I put it back! (Saves me returning it!)
Meditative thought helps clear some headspace in order to find solutions rather than being caught up in habit.
Alternatively, these are some very quick and simple things to bring a little more joy into your day - which can act as an excellent buffer to the stress response:
3) Look after your body physically
With stress being a physiological response, physical care can be just as important as emotional and mental support for building resilience to stress. Eating sensibly, drinking water, going to the toilet when you need to, sleeping well and simple things such as taking breaks can help our bodies function better, after all, we often ask a lot of them so we would do well to look after them.
When travelling to somewhere with a time difference reset your watch right now and you can try to adjust your sleep or rest pattern accordingly. Note that if you do not feel sleepy, don’t force yourself to sleep – this can heighten feelings of stress, instead close your eyes and focus on your breathing, or perhaps try the body scan!
4) Find healthy means of enjoying adrenaline
We know that for some, “stress” can be a motivator! However, rather than leaving things until the last minute, because you “work better under pressure”, consider doing the job early, and being able to improve on it nearer the deadline. Then find other ways of getting that “adrenaline rush” that you may crave. It is always down to personal choice and awareness of your own health, safety and finances but if you enjoy roller coasters then visit a theme park; try out sports such as skiing, or hobbies such as flying or bungee jumping – find a way of achieving that exhilaration where you add benefit to your life as well as satisfy your craving!
5) Practice gratitude
Too often we are stressed because we get caught up in what we “should” have done, or what we “could” be doing still. The practice of gratitude helps us focus on the here and now. Go on, right now – think of one thing you’re grateful to have; and one person you are grateful to know. You now know you already have those!!
...and then tell them - and you'll be paving the way for a happy Christmas for them too!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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