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April is Stress Awareness Month and, for many of us, it could not come at a more perfect time. Busy work schedules, full social calendars, spring holidays and the anticipation of summer can create huge stressers, put a lot of strain on time and certainly leaves fewer opportunities for self-care. While many of these moments and events are fun and exciting, it is important to focus on taking care of ourselves when we anticipate busier seasons of life!
When I work with a patient on increasing their individualized coping strategies for managing stress, I tend to focus on two approaches. The first is to bolster “reactive” strategies – or those we use in moments of high stress and overstimulation that come on quickly and feel very intense. I’m sure we can all relate to those “zero to sixty” moments where we feel anxious, angry, sad or some other intense feeling. This is often our natural stress response at play and the feeling will usually pass. We can move more easily through these experiences by incorporating a few skills including relaxation and distraction techniques. The other approach for coping focuses on “proactive” or “big picture” strategies. These include more intentional choices of how and where we spend our time and energy when we are feeling more vulnerable.
Let's dive into a few of my tried-and-true “reactive” strategies for stress management.
1. Breathing Exercises – My favorite breathing technique is box breathing (aka square breathing). Box breathing is a simple and slow breathing exercise where we close our eyes and then simply count our breaths in and out for four seconds on each inhale and exhale. We also use our mind to imagine the shape of our box to accompany our breaths, which helps distract and focus our mind. Click here for a video of this breathing technique. If four seconds feels like too much, just start with two or three seconds on an inhale or exhale.
2. Change Your Environment – One quick and easy intervention I suggest to my patients is to “change their environment” when they are notice a stressful moment coming on or feel their mind racing. This could be standing up and walking away from your desk or down the hall; opening the door and stepping outside for a few minutes; having a sip of water or bite to eat; getting into a cold or hot shower or even taking off shoes and socks and setting bare feet on the ground. While doing any of these things, observe what you can feel, see, smell or hear- and don’t forget your breathing! The goal is to immediately change your sensory experience to redirect your thoughts and help you feel more grounded.
3. Move Your Body - A quick 5-10 minute movement can do wonders for your mind and body. I recommend desk yoga, gentle stretching or a walk around the block if you are strapped for time or don’t have a space to get in some movement without getting some funny looks. If you have more time to spare, try taking a long walk outside or firing up an at-home video. I love the positive energy in low impact workouts by Yoga with Adriene or Melissa Wood Health. Feet up the wall is a yoga stretch which aids in circulation and also be very calming.
4. Put Down Your Phone – We live in a world where our phone travels everywhere with us, even on our bathroom breaks! Being glued to our phones does impact our present-moment awareness in a major way. Practice putting it away! There are two goals with separating from our phone for a bit when stressed. The first goal is to remove additional stressors that keep pinging us (incoming texts, work email, phone calls, news content, etc.); the other is to work on becoming more present in our activities (whether it be work, socializing, parenting, etc.). If you are feeling stressed, try to take a break from the phone by physically separating it from you into the other room. It may take some time before you can easily do this for at least 30 minutes at a time, so start in 5 – 10 minute intervals away. If it feels good to you to take a break, do it more often.
5. Have A “Feel Good” Game Plan – The things that help us “feel good” are likely as dynamic and fluid as we are. Where we once loved to rock out to our radio in the car, we might now crave silence and stillness volume-off time on our commute. I encourage you to consider all of the things that comprise your “feel good” list – whether it be music or a special playlist, a favorite TV show or movie, activity, book, podcast, person, pet, exercise or something else. Then, list these out somewhere when you are not stressed so you have them on deck for your more high stress moments. I encourage my patients to make a special note on their phone so those ideas are easily accessible when they feel overwhelmed and have a solid game plan of what they can do to change their mood.
Now you have a toolbox to pull from when you find yourself in a stressful situation. Whether you resonate with one or all of these strategies, use this list of "reactive" tips for stress management as a resource and focus your energy on taking care of you.
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