My stress management routine (mitigate then manage)
Updated: Jul 25
Most of us are very aware when we experience the unpleasant physiological effects of a stressful situation. Our heart rate increases, we might sweat, we feel tense, our blood pressure rises and we might become irritable and unable to focus – or become too “one track minded”
While “stress” is simply an evolutionary response to threat; an emotional and physical state resulting in a physiological reaction where the body is prepared to fight or fly, it can last until the perceived threat has passed, or push our body to the point where is no longer able to sustain this state and falls into exhaustion, and it feels horrible.
The common negative effects of stress include:
· Lack of sleep
· Inability to focus
· Changes in eating habits – often over or under eating
· Supressing our immune system so we may be more susceptible to illness, or find it harder to recover
…and these in turn can spiral into further problems which may include problems in relationships, completion of tasks at work, and overall poor physical health.
However, the good news is that as these stressors are often temporary, if they are removed or even mitigated prior to exhaustion, recovery is often swift. Further, in the early stages of stress a physical response such as the pumping of adrenaline, a focus on the threat and a feeling of tension may be exactly what we need to drive us to address whatever the situation is that has made us feel that way. Not only that, but if we listen to our body’s response and can identify stress triggers, we may be able to make small changes in order to live a happier life.
As long as we learn how to manage it, stress is not necessarily a bad thing! FURTHER, managing it becomes all the easier if we take steps to mitigate it first!
Mindfulness techniques can first mitigate then help you manage stress:
With roots in Buddhist meditative practice, “Mindfulness” was brought into mainstream usage in 1979 when the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts presented the “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” programme (MBSR). This brought the Buddhist practice of meditation into the formal scientific and clinical setting.
In my own experience of feelings of stress, in the past I have joked that when my body is already anxious being told to "calm down" doesn't provoke the desired response. Moreover, until recently, I have not been a great lover of meditation finding it, well, "boring".
BUT you don’t necessarily have to take a Course, be a yoga fan, nor have a Zen room to enjoy creating (and the benefits of) a clear and aware mind; and it is worth being aware that meditation is not the only means to bring awareness – and stress reduction into your life. Any technique that can heighten our knowledge of what our body is saying to us and enable us to enjoy living in the present that little bit more can improve our wellbeing. BUT mindful practice is only one part of the story. You also need to use that information to make improvements for yourself!!
My personal routine
Through the pandemic my own routine has changed - much of it for the better as I have been able to gain back some time, and because of imposed restrictions have in turn not simply then refilled with things that do not fulfil me just to feel busy. Instead I have changed pace!
- I get up an hour earlier, have breakfast with my husband before work and then walk the dog.
- I then run (a couple of years ago I swapped gym membership for a treadmill), but because I was running early, watching whatever Netflix series I was on didn't seem quite appropriate -so I decided to try some YouTube meditations.
I found running to positive affirmations as well as some specifically aimed at running and exercise really helped, and soon this became my new habit. Within two weeks I found my mood lifted, I was - and still am - more positive as I approach life, and I really notice it when I don't start my day with a moment of calm (so I found time to include it!!)
This doesn't mean I don't get stressed - I do, I dislike conflict, but sometimes I need to stand up for my beliefs. As a self-employed practitioner with a media profile I face rejection and criticism - although through meditation I have learned to manage my ego so as not to wilfully invite the latter! And, even though I'm a psychologist, of course I have my own emotional baggage. BUT I have also noticed that through not only meditation, but also a focus on truly valuing and appreciating everything I have I have less room for envy, petty squabbles and psychodramas which don't involve me, and all the more to spend when I engage with those who uplift my vibe.
The following tools have helped me:
1. The body scan
Start with some deep breaths to centre yourself – breathe in for 3, hold for 2 and out for 5. As you breathe scan your body to recognise signs of tension.
For me this works as an identifier - I know immediately now when I feel anxiety as I hold it in my shoulders and I can take action to try and address the root. Dread, I feel in my chest - and as with anxiety both sensations prompt me to ask rather than assume, or reflect to reassure myself my actions were sound...amending faults if necessary.
2. Mindful deep breathing
First, the “science bit”: 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. Free guided meditations to support you can be found here:
I interchange simple breathing with guided meditations and have a personal preference for ones which focus on positive affirmations and gratitude rather than relaxation.
3. Find moments to be informally mindful
Mindful practice does not always need to be formal - informal moments of being present can be just as conducive to good mental health and wellbeing.
Have a go - even right now!:
- When listening to a piece of music, think about all the instruments. Take a moment to enjoy how the music comes together, and how it rises and falls. Think about why you enjoy it, and what that music might remind you of.
- As you sit in your seat, think about the information you are getting through all of your senses – not just your eyes. Think about the sounds, smells, tastes and sensations – perhaps even do this when you reach your destination. Enjoy the feel of the new climate; the sensation of coming to land. Look out of the window and take in the beauty of the sights – the lights of the city if it is dark, or the trees and greenery, or the water as you come to land.
- When having a drink take a moment to appreciate the sensation as it quenches your thirst
- When eating take a moment to savour the taste – and see if you can recognise the multitude of flavours
4 . Appreciate what you have
One of the reasons we feel envy is because we believe we lack in some way, and this can happen when, objectively, we may want for nothing. A simple reframing of our thinking can help us truly value and recognise what we have.
Consider this analogy from Eric Ho who talks about a little child eating ice cream, and the child licks the ice cream off (who hasn't been there!?). The parent reassures the child that they will get them a new one - and the child asks for a much larger ice cream.
Surely that parent would not be teaching the best message if they agree. Although accidental, that child hasn't been able to look after what they had.
How many times have you (I know I have in the past) run from achievement to achievement (or purchase to purchase) without truly appreciating what you already have. To remind myself of this I practice gratitude daily, but I am now also making sure I optimise (or at least use) everything I have - which has the ripple effect of making me think before I spend or chase the next purchase or goal. Further, I barely feel envy now as I don't even think about what I don't have, and if it ever creeps in, I reframe the thought to be pleased to see someone celebrating their fortune and feel gratitude that I've captured some of their reflected positive energy!
5. Value who you have
This needs little explanation - if you have people around you who support you, nurture you, celebrate you and include you, simply, always make sure you do the same for them. Dropping a "thinking of you" text; keeping them posted on your news; sending something just to make them smile...since coming off my personal facebook I've also made the effort to remember birthdays without the notification!! In some ways through reducing my social connection, I have deepened my personal ones - and feel amazing for it. No longer am I half watching a movie while chatting to someone else online - I'm enjoying the time with my husband. No more is my first instinct - capture this for a post, but rather, capture this because I want to look at it and smile. Although only a subtle shift, my focus on valuing moments for what they are rather than for what I am posting brings a sense of relief (which incidentally, I feel in my heart!)
I know my approach is not for everyone - but for me it underpins the value of building up my sense of optimism, replenishing my positivity reservoir, and topping up my energy because while I cannot prevent stress, I know I have more in my own reserves to face it. I also know that you may think "I'm so busy" - yes my professional routine is more flexible, but to incorporate it I now get up an hour earlier - even I haven't "found" time, I've made time. And I continue learning and adjusting as another thing I've learned is that as I continue to grow my routines also need to change to accommodate but it simply excites me that there is still more to experience, just around the corner.
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 resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt