Managing Stress - Calming the Body
Stress is a survival mechanism which puts our bodies and mind on alert and prepares us to look out for and manage threats. Fighting, running or freezing become the priority for our bodily functions. Here are some examples of the signals in our bodies which occur when we are stressed:
· Shortness of breath
· Your heart beating faster
· A tightness in your chest
· Aches in your neck and joints
· Tension in your shoulders
· Butterflies in your stomach
· Difficulty sleeping
· Eating more or less than usual
The body knows how to react to stress. Unfortunately, it has a number of side effects as shown above. Our heart beats faster to give us more speed and stamina, but it can lead to numbness if we don’t use up this extra energy. We get more oxygen to our lungs and limbs to make us stronger, but this often results in later dizziness, chest pain or a shortness of breath. Our muscles in the arms, legs and shoulders tense up to give us more power, but this can leave with aches or shakes. Even our digestion slows down, as the energy is redirected to other parts of the body, with the side effect of a heaviness in our stomach or nausea.
As we experience more and more stress and become hypervigilant to threats, our body can maintain this fight/flight/freeze response. This makes us think and feel more negatively, which only prolongs the cycle of stress response. During the current coronavirus crisis, many people will be experiencing the physiological symptoms above as they worry about loved ones, incomes and the lack of outdoor activity. This will have a cumulative and negative impact on our well-being. So, what can we do to try and calm the body?
It’s important to note that this article was written at a time when one form of daily outdoor exercise was permitted within the government guidance. There may be further restrictions on our movement as we approach the peak of the crisis. So, whilst observing clear social distancing advice when others are in the vicinity, I would definitely recommend going for a walk, a run or a cycle. If you are worried about the proximity of other people during these trips, simply going for a walk up and down your street or a nearby park when it’s quiet will help to reduce your blood pressure and make you physically fitter. Listening to music or podcasts can be a great way of distracting yourself from negative thoughts during this activity.
There are also lots of indoor exercises we can perform using our bodyweight. You can develop a routine of push-ups on the floor or triceps dips from a stable chair. This website offers video demonstrations and instructions for a range of bodyweight and toning exercises that can be undertaken with no equipment - https://www.livestrong.com/slideshow/551492-2o-best-body-weight-exercises/?slide=1
In an earlier blog on managing stress during the coronavirus crisis, I talked about the effect of breathing on our general well-being. While there are a number of different approaches, the consensus is to make our breathing slower and deeper – in other words, the opposite to how our breathing occurs when we are panicked. Dr Richard Brown has a nice video on different types of breathing and how these can be linked to different rhythms - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CngH49c4zgo. This brings us nicely to the next section.
Rhythmic Input and Repetitive Activities
This article on healing from trauma by Dr Bruce Perry - https://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/developmental-trauma-3/ - outlines how rhythm is very regulating for the brain. It helps to establish a sense of safety and instils calmness. There are lots of opportunities to incorporate rhythmic activities into our daily routines, whilst at home. YouTube is awash with dance and yoga routines which you watch on your Smart TV, laptop or tablet. When you and your family are washing the dishes, you can establish a tapping or drumming beat to go along with your actions as you pass items to each other. If you have a child who likes to play with a skipping role or bounce on an outdoor trampoline, now might be the time to try these out for yourself. You can even sing a song during an otherwise mundane chore; I’m partial to power ballads myself!
If you can feel the stress in a particular part of your body, such as your shoulders or your hands, try tensing and relaxing these muscles in turn. Scrunch up your shoulders or clench your fists for around 5 seconds and then release the tension. Activating the muscles and joints through “heavy work”, which taps into our proprioceptive sense, can also be a good way of calming our body and helping us get back to an optimal calm and alert state. This might involve wiping surfaces, mopping floors, raking and shovelling in the garden, carrying heavy boxes when decluttering a room, etc.
With people working at home or working in frontline jobs under greater stress, many of us may end up eating differently than normal. I personally eat more snacks when I’m very stressed, even when I don’t feel particularly hungry. We should try to have a balanced diet, indulging in complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fats and proteins. Healthy eating can be difficult to maintain when we’re under huge pressure, so it’s important to start with small and achievable goals and accept that there will be good and bad days; the latter of which we can learn from by keeping track of how we were thinking and feeling on a particular day where we reached for more fats and simple carbs. We can also slowly reduce our intake or caffeine and alcohol, so that the withdrawal effects are easier to manage.
Sleep is also very important. How often do we manage to get through the day with various distractions, only to have our minds racing when we finally turn off the bedroom light at night? If you feel that poor or disrupted sleep plays a big role in your mood and energy levels, you may have to adapt your sleeping routine. Think about the environment first. Is the bedroom dark enough? Has there been enough fresh air running through it? Do you need new pillows or a lighter duvet? We should also consider our habits in the lead-up to bedtime. It may be necessary to schedule some time to think about and worry about something that is on your mind. Relaxing before bed at a consistent time also helps to slow you down and prepare you for the transition.
The physical sensations associated with stress are often something we notice right away, especially as they can appear before we are consciously aware of the thought or environmental trigger which caused the sensation. Getting better at calming our bodies can help to prevent these physiological changes from escalating, leaving us better equipped to logically reflect on the source of our stress and respond in a healthy way.