The first post of this series ends with the following sentence:
Once you have decided that the state of emergency and alarm is not something that you want to live with, there are things that you can to manage and take your stress reaction under control. This begins from within, because the only thing that we can ever truly control is how we react to a situation or a person, and how we behave and in turn how we feel about it. All other things in life are beyond our control to varying degrees.
This is a very useful way of seeing things, and potentially everything in life. It is neither too dismissive of the world around us, nor too engaging that we get lost in it. I think it encourages us to carefully identify that fine border between ourselves (which we can control) and the rest of the world (which we cannot control). If stress is unmanaged for too long, this border gets blurred, and then we lose sight of what we can and cannot control in our lives. The longer we live like this, the more difficult it gets to undo our confusion and straighten things out.
As I’ve said before, stress is not something we could or would even want to get rid of, but it is instead something we want to manage. If you think you are suffering from acute or prolonged stress or anxiety, here are some simple ways to manage it.
1. Teach yourself how to breathe deeper and to relax the diaphragm:
The way we move and hold ourselves can have a great effect on the way breathe, because postural muscles are sometimes the same muscles as those used in respiration, or at least they are closely located. The longer we sit in front of the computer or TV, the more lazy these muscles become and they lose strength. People who work with computers most often complain about muscular problems around the shoulders and upper chest, because these muscles become very tight and strained. The problem is that these muscles are also involved in breathing. As a result, breathing becomes shorter and confined to the tops of the lungs. Following the general principle of “use it or you lose it!”, the unused bronchioles (i.e. little air sacks) in the lower parts of the lungs get tighter and smaller.
In addition, the diaphragm – a sheet of muscle, tendon and other connective tissue – loses its stretchy tone and becomes very tight, and fails to do its full part in breathing. Due to its close relation and connection to your spine and pelvic floor and some other big muscles, not to mention the organs that are suspended off it, how our diaphragm feels has a great impact on how we breathe. (More details and my declaration of love for the diaphragm will be included in another post at a later date.). So, deliberately deepening the breath will have the effect of reversing this unhelpful build up of tension in the lungs and diaphragm.
What can you do:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position so that your spine is straight and extended and you can expand your lungs without difficulty. Put one hand on the belly and the other on the chest.
Set your timer for only 60 seconds, observe your natural breath and make a mental note of anything you observe in your chest, on your back, under your hands during this minute.
Then, empty your lungs completely and breathe in for as long as 6 seconds, hold your breath for a second or two, and then breathe out for as long as 6-7 seconds. Therefore equalising your inhales and your exhales, each which should be at least 6 seconds long. Do this for about 3-4 minutes.
A quick fix is to breathe in deeply and then exhaling it quickly out of your mouth, like a soft or maybe fast sigh.
2. Take a break and have fun
I know this sounds very general and quite impossible for a time when you are feeling crushed under a lot of stress. But it is true. When you are having fun, your body and brain produce lots of substances that make your mind and your muscles relax, and therefore you feel relaxed. This is a nice way to get rid of some of the tension in your body.
What can you do:
Do some exercise and rest afterwads. This doesn’t have to be high-power exercise that will exhaust you. Go to a yoga class, get on the treadmill and run a kilometre or two, join a short spinning class. If you don’t want to go to the gym, YouTube is full of yoga instruction videos, or take a walk, run around the neighbourhood.
If you have a hobby, start a small and fun project, nothing too demanding, but something you can go back every now and then when you need a break from your work.
Socialise. This is an obvious one. At times of stress, we might begin to feel a little uneasy in our various relationships, and perhaps especially with our significant other. So, spare some time for them. For example, 10 minutes in the evening for an uninterrupted cuddle would provide a great moment of relaxation for both of you. If you don’t have partner, never mind. Meet with your friends. This doesn’t have to involve alcohol and it does not have to last for hours; a cup of tea and short chat with a friend will calm you down. If you are feeling too tired to talk to anyone, watch a fun film in the company of others. Go for a mindful walk together, where you will not feel the need to talk, but still benefit from the comforting company of a friend.
These suggestions might sound lame, but they work. A little lame goes a long way…
3. Active relaxing of muscles – i.e. pandiculation
I have posted about pandiculation before. Nowadays it is seen as the better alternative to simply relaxing the muscles, and is used to regain the brain’s control of tight painful muscles. It is a learning process that resets muscles at the nervous system level. Whilst stretching only sends the signals as far as the spinal cord, pandiculation provides feedback all the way to the cerebral cortex, the command center of your muscles. This allows your brain to reset muscle length, which results in more relaxed muscles. We do pandiculation naturally most mornings when we wake up, and so you are already familiar with it, perhaps without knowing it. It involves contracting the muscles within comfortable limits, then stretching the muscle in its contracted state, and then very slowly and gradually relaxing it to return the muscle to its original state.
What can you do:
Lie on your back on your mat, in your bed, on the sofa or anywhere you will be comfortable.
Take a few moments to scan your body and check in.
Focus on a specific muscle, muscle group, or area where it is difficult to isolate the muscles.
Contract the muscle/area, stretch it to the limit that you are comfortable with and then gradually relax it.
You can do this more systematically all throughout your body, or using a certain muscle at a time when the muscle is too tight. Finish your session with a short scan of the body and a few minutes of quiet.
As this is a very popular topic and the internet is full of information, I will not go into too much detail at this time. According to Wikipedia, mindfulness is “the practice of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation”. Improved cardiovascular health and motor skills, boosted immune system, better concentration, reduced anxiety and depression, and increased empathy are amongst the well-documented benefits of mindfulness.
A few mindful minutes a day gives you the opportunity to notice and make a note of your feelings, your body and thoughts. The most important part of mindfulness practice is to remember that it is a time for observation without any judgment. When you sit at your mindfulness spot, leave behind all judgment about yourself, about all thoughts and feelings. Just acknowledge and notice. The whole point of mindfulness is to create a space where you cease to judge yourself and learn to step back to observe instead of giving in to the urge to engage with the feeling or thought you may be having or the stressful situation you are in.
What can you do:
Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed or straightened in front of you or even on a chair. See that you knees are slightly lower than you hips, if not, get a cushion under you. Have a timer with you. In the early days, begin with 3-4 minutes and increase this when you feel that you can. Set your timer so you will not have to worry about missing the time.
Bring your attention to your sitting bones and from there straighten your spine so that you are sitting upright. Relax your shoulders and put your hands in your lap or on your thighs so that your elbows are below your shoulders.
Softly close your eyes, relax your face and any tight muscles on your upper back and legs. Pandiculate, maybe.
Now, bring your attention to your natural breath and begin watching your breath flow in and out through your nose. You can combine this with your breathing exercises and count your inhales and exhales.
The cycle of mindfulness begins with bringing your attention to you breath. Soon your mind begins to wander and you find yourself thinking about the train ticket you should have bought yesterday. Then you bring your attention back to your breath, and so on and so on and so on.
I hope this is clear and that it helps you to know all this. I’ll try to write about the weekly theme for each of the Eksamensyoga classes, and a little more on stress and behavioural and emotional reactions to prolonged stress soon. Now, I’ve got to go and watch Game of Thrones. 🙂