It starts with moist palms, tight muscles, butterflies dancing in the stomach; then, it can progress to a racing heartbeat that soon feels it will bound from the chest and run away! Everyone on the planet has faced at least one of these and other physiological responses to stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, one Dr. Hans Selye coined the term “stress” and defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Change big and small is an inevitable part of life, and in fact, it’s one of the few constants. So how does one best deal with change, positive and negative, niggling or overwhelming? In my work as a wellness nurse, my clients frequently ask me about stress management strategies. Here are the top ten tips to manage stress and build resilience for the future:
1. Bring the locus of control back to a position of power! Stress increases when external situations feel uncontrollable. The best way to overcome this is not to try to change all situations, but to change your response. For instance, if your boss is acting unreasonable or unfair, remember that there is little you can do to change your boss’s attitude—at least in the short term. Instead of suffering at your desk, take a 5 minute break to get tea or even a quick walk around the block—and remind yourself that it’s within your power to determine how much you are affected by the situation. So go ahead and empower!
2. Use this resilience-building question: “Will this really matter in 10 years, 10 months, or even 10 minutes?” Most often, the answer is no.
3. Get all the information before making an assumption about a situation. For instance, I caused myself undue stress for a few years. I assumed my father paid for my brother’s college expenses while I didn’t have that option. I felt hurt, angry and thought he was playing favorites. I finally talked to my brother and discovered the truth that he had paid his own way through school. I felt silly I wasted time holding a grudge, but I learned a valuable lesson about checking things out. Suddenly too, my stress dissolved and I felt better.
4. Forgive! This is easier said than done, but well worth it. Forgiveness isn’t about condoning or excusing the offence. Rather, it’s a process, which leads to inner peace. It takes time and patience, as the emotions around a hurtful situation don’t occur all at once and they can return. When they do, try writing in a journal or using a simple mindfulness tool of acknowledging the emotion, accepting it’s there, then sitting with it and allowing it to resonate. The emotional energy then dissipates on its own.
5. Tame the brain! According to David Burns’ book, Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy, certain thinking errors can lead to stress. Making assumptions about another person’s thoughts or intentions is mind reading: “Did you bring up that book on fashion because you think I need help?” Fortune telling occurs when someone hears some bad news and jumps to conclusions about it: “I heard our company had a budget deficit! Now my job will be cut!” Another is “catastrophizing,” which is making a bad situation worse: “I spilled my coffee on me now my whole day is ruined!”
6. Get physical! Dance, hop, skip, jump, or walk. Make yourself glow with an enjoyable physical activity.
7. Sing! Get that hairbrush and sing aloud! Listen to a favorite song or genre. According to a study published in American Journal of Public Health, “music engagement” is an effective “art-based intervention” to “reduce adverse physiological and psychological outcomes”. Voice lessons worked for me when I was in nursing school! Go ahead and sing like a rock star (rapper, opera star, or crooner)!
8. Create a great support network of friends. Spend time with enjoyable people, those who will listen, or help when the chips are down; and, those who are comfortable hearing what needs sharing. Years of research shows that those who have healthy relationships are prone to stay healthier, bounce back better from major stressors, and have better recovery when seriously ill.
9. Laugh! Laughter really IS the best medicine. Studies show that laughing reduces the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
10. Make quiet time. Whether it’s meditation, just sitting still, or being in the moment, this activity, or lack thereof, increases resiliency. The National Institute of Health pooled data from two studies showing that a group who did Transcendental Meditation versus “other behavioral stress-reducing interventions” showed an overall 23% decrease in mortality, 30% decrease of cardiovascular death, and a 49% decrease in cancer mortality.
When feeling overwhelmed, try this meditation practice of focusing on your breathing: start by sitting in a comfortable position with your spine straight and head in a neutral position. Then close your eyes, breathe in gently through your nostrils, and expand your abdomen out while your lungs expand. Do this on a slow count of five or for whatever amount feels comfortable. Pause for a few seconds before slowly allowing the air out through your nose or mouth for a count of five or less. If you notice your mind wandering, gently notice that, and bring your awareness back to your breathing. Practice this for a few minutes a day and work your way up to 10 minutes or more. After 10 minutes of deep breathing, you naturally engage the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which is the body’s calming agent. In addition, it gives the benefit of feeling more alert and invigorated.
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