Life has normal everyday stressors that can include relationships, work, family, health, finances, school or a ton of other things. However, these days there seems to be a bit of extra stress out there. If you work in health care, teaching or with the general public, you may be feeling even more of a burden. There are many areas that could be concerning for people. For anyone with school age children there may be concerns about whether school will be closed and if there will be a return to virtual learning. How to keep yourself and your children safe. There may be frustrations with family members who have differing opinions on how to handle COVID-19, or political differences, and all the other things that have hit us over the last 18+ months. It does feel like there is more coming at us than ever before. How do we manage all the stressors when every day, there seems to be something else to worry about? Some signs that maybe you aren’t coping as well as you could look like anger, anxiety, change in habits (not exercising or eating healthy), using more alcohol/drugs, feeling fatigued, poor sleep or just not feeling like yourself. Are you getting angry at stuff that wouldn’t have bothered you before? Are you more tearful? Just feeling nervous or fearful can all be signs that the stress is overloading you.
Where to start? We need to go back to the basic and do some self-care. If some of the answers to questions above were that you are not eating healthy, no longer exercising or not getting enough sleep that may be a good place to start. If making any big changes feels like too much then find an area where it feels more manageable, and make one change. Ask yourself, “What can I do right now?” Maybe add some more vegetables into your day or one healthy meal. Maybe you start with walking around the block or walking at lunch. Sleep is incredibly important, and sleep opportunity is the first step. Make sure you are putting enough time aside for sleep. It shouldn’t be a secondary choice left to whatever time remains. Make sure you are allowing a sufficient amount of time for sleep. Sleep is very important for our health and in our ability to cope. If we are not allowing enough time to actually sleep, this is the first step in improving your sleep.
It is a good time to start or increase a self-compassion practice. The elements include mindfulness, kindness, and an understanding that we have a shared humanity (everyone suffers/we all go through hard times). Be present with what you are feeling. We need to allow ourselves to feel whatever we are feeling and be present with it. We need to look deeper at the underlying feelings. If feelings are just being pushed down, they will come out in less than helpful ways. You may need to recognize the grief you are feeling caused by the loss of going out with friends, shopping, going to concerts or even having to cancel big events you had planned or a vacation. For many of us we have had losses of family members, friends, coworkers, pets that have happened over the last 18 months, some related to COVID-19 and some unrelated. But, it has impacted many with how we can say goodbye or if they could have or be at a funeral. We haven’t even been able to celebrate the same way we used to. Life has changed in many ways. Maybe you are feeling sadness or fear. We must be present and look inwards. The first step in processing our feelings is recognizing them. This is the mindful part.
Here are some ideas to start to work on a self-compassion practice. First, give yourself a break. Show yourself some kindness by acknowledging it been hard and it is okay you are struggling with this. Give yourself some kind words, “it is okay, you are doing your best”. Increase your awareness when you notice self-criticism, that critical voice. When you notice that critical voice you can just say to yourself, “STOP! That’s just not true!” and reframe it to what you would say to friend. I’m pretty sure most people would not say to a friend some of the harsh things they say to themselves, or they probably would not have any friends. This is a good tool to build resiliency, manage stress and improve coping. We need to be kind to ourselves and give ourselves some grace. Some additional things to try is self-soothing activities. This can be just sitting outside, enjoying a cup of tea, a supportive gesture (taking a breath and placing your hands over your heart) and saying a reassuring mantra, “this too will pass’, or whatever you may find comforting. Staying present with our feelings but not over identifying with our feelings.
Next, we may need to do a little fasting. Not from food but from technology, reading/watching the news or whatever may be feeding some of your stress. Unplugging may be just what you need. Try to connect with nature, talk to friend, or meditate. As wonderful as technology has been to help us stay connected, it also has feed many of our stresses. Try to cut back as much as you can even if it means a set time while you do another activity. Try to cut back if you feel like you just can’t stop watching the news, you can put a time limit on how long you spend watching or reading about current events or opinion TV.
Another good way to manage stress levels, is breath work. We can utilize the breath to help with stress. Below are some different breathing techniques to try out and see which ones you like:
Deep Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing) this is one of my favorites that I do daily and would highly recommend it. It is simple with a lot of results.
• Inhale through the nose. The diaphragm should expand (hold your hands on the ribcage/belly, you should feel the expansion).
• Exhale slow and long through slightly pursed lips (I prefer a longer exhale to the inhale, but it does need to be slow).
• Do this 2 to 3 times
4-7-8 breathing/ this is a good one for those who need to focus on counting, to just being able to focus on the breath.
• Focus on the breathing patterns
• Empty the lungs of air
• Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
• Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
• Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
• Repeat the cycle up to 4 times
Square Breathing/ this can be a good one with both counting and being able to add movement of drawing the square.
• Inhale for a count 4
• Hold the breath for 4 counts
• Exhale for a count of 4
• Hold for 4 counts
• Repeat 4 times
• (Can draw a line for each part in the air, on the ground or even on a paper)
• Do for 2 to 3 breaths
Quick Calm Breath
• Take a deep Breath
• Hold 3-4 seconds
• Exhale, think “I am calm”
• Do 3-4 breaths
• Take in a deep breath and count
• Hold a few seconds
• Then count down as you exhale
• Repeat for a few breaths.
“Voo” Breathing (This is another one of my favorites and you can feel a complete shift) For a simple sound healing self-care exercise.
• Slowly inhale
• Take a small pause
• Then begin to breathe out
• As you breathe out, gently say “voo”, sustaining the sound through the entire exhalation
• Vibrate the sound as if it were coming from your stomach
• Once your breath and sound have fully expired, pause.
• Let your next breath fill your stomach and chest when it is ready
• Repeat several times, and then rest
Another tool you can add to your toolbox to manage your stress is imagery which is a natural mind-body technique that uses mental images and simple relaxation techniques to promote a positive outcome. In addition to easing stress, it can help you get in touch with your feelings and emotions, which can help facilitate the healing process. Picturing calming mental images of relaxing places and situations to cope with negative emotions, feelings or circumstances. You can use guided imagery or just visualize.
Here is an example of one but you can find many different scripts, downloads and apps out there to use or just use your imagination.
• Start by getting comfortable in a quiet place
• Take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing
• Close your eyes, become aware of any tension in your body, and let that tension go with each out-breath.
• Imagine a place (real or imagined) where you can feel calm, and peaceful. It may be a place you’ve been to before, somewhere you’ve dreamed about going to, somewhere you’ve seen a picture of, or just a peaceful place you can create in your mind’s eye.
• Look around and notice what is there. What do you see, smell, hear, and feel? Take notice of everything.
• You might choose to give it a name, whether one word or a phrase that you can use to bring that image back, anytime you need to.
• You can choose to linger there a while, just enjoying the peacefulness and serenity. You can leave whenever you want to, just by opening your eyes and being aware of where you are now and bringing yourself back to alertness in the ‘here and now’.
There are some apps for your phone or iPad, for example Headspace, or Calm. I really like Virtual Hope Box, and CBT-i coach (this is also for managing sleep) which are free apps.
Another way to manage our stress is to have a gratitude practice. It is usually on the top of the list on changing perceptions of ourselves and the world. It’s not an easy transition to go from only seeing the obstacles in our lives to better appreciating what has helped us along the way. Once you are able to begin widening the scope of what you notice about yourself and the world around you, it is easier to make the transition to being grateful for your blessings and less resentful of your barriers. This is where the opportunity to start a gratitude practice begins. Some examples of exercises to create a gratitude practice are a gratitude journal and 3 blessing exercise.
• Try this exercise every night (for 3 weeks), either in written form or as a mental exercise. Ask yourself what three things happened in your day for which you feel blessed and grateful. Add why they happened to you, and specifically to you.
• Do this faithfully, and you’ll discover a shift in the way you go through your day, and the things that you choose to notice and amplify. Strive to come up with as many as possible if three is too few!
• You can also keep a gratitude journal where every day or most days you write down something you are grateful for.
Having a gratitude practice can help you manage stress better, and it will increase resiliency and increase your tolerance to stressors.
Many of us have had a reduction in our window of tolerance (This term is used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively). These different activities and exercises can help build it back up. We have all been cut off from some or all of our normal support or activities. There are times we will feel a sense of disconnect, sadness, anxiety and a sense of being lost but we don’t want to stay in that place which can turn in to hopelessness. Acting and behaving like nothing is wrong is not the answer either. What we can do is build up our toolboxes that help us manage the stress better and broaden our window of tolerance and be a more resilient compassionate human being.
Please seek help if you feel it has gotten just too much to handle. There is help out there. There are many different counseling options available. Also available is the 24 hours National Suicide Hotline 800-273-8255 and Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255/text 208-398-4357. You don’t have to be suicidal to call. Reach out for help if you need it.
Take some steps to taking care of yourself, staying connected to the people in your life, incorporating techniques to keep a handle on your daily stress and continue to build your window of tolerance and resiliency. We make choices every day and depending on what we choose we remain in extreme unhealthy stress or we can work to find and maintain our balance. Each day is an opportunity to make choices.
“Every day we’re given a choice: We can relax and float in the direction that the water flows, or we can swim hard against it. If we go with the river, the energy of a thousand mountain streams will be with us . . . if we resist the river, we will feel rankled and tired as we tread water, stuck in the same place”. Elizabeth Lesser
photo by Ramiro Pianarosa
Original Post Sept 14, 2021 on Karen Gentilman’s website Illumination Counseling Service.
Karen Gentilman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) practicing in the State of Idaho, working for 30 years with many different medical conditions both acute and chronic conditions, the last 20 years in neurological rehabilitation including brain injury, strokes and spinal cord injuries. She takes a trauma-informed, integrated and holistic approach with utilizing multiple modalities which is individually based while striving to provide compassionate therapeutic environment. Call (208) 266-4642 or email KarenGentilman@IlluminationCounselingService.com to set up a FREE 15-minute consultation. Visit Karen Gentilman’s profile page.