Last week we had a think about some of the differences between acute and chronic stress, and how the nervous system works. This week, we're going to look at some general ways of managing stress.
Harnessing the parasympathetic nervous system to help us manage stress
You'll remember from last week's post that the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the part of the system that acts as a bit of a brake, calming down the "fight or flight" response. One way in which we can use the PNS to our advantage is by using a type of breathing called diaphragmatic breathing to help us to calm the stress response down. The diaphragm is a muscle that sits just above your abdomen, below your lungs. If you are using your diaphragm to breathe, it signals to your body that you are in a relaxed state and that there is no danger that it needs to be worried about.
How to do diaphragmatic breathing:
Find a quiet place for a few minutes, somewhere you won't be disturbed.
Place your hands on your stomach with your fingertips slightly touching each other.
Breathe in slowly through your nose (if possible) for a count of four – as you do so, your fingertips should part slightly as your stomach expands, like a balloon is inflating inside it.
Hold the breath for a moment, and then breathe out slowly through your mouth for a count of four.
Pause at the end of the breath for a moment, and then repeat.
It may take you a bit of time to get used to breathing this way – don’t be discouraged! Like playing the piano, the more you practice it the better you will get. It would be impossible to focus on your breathing at all times, so generally speaking, aiming for a “check-in” with yourself two or three times a day, where you use diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes, should have a noticeable effect on your stress levels over time.
What other things can I do to look after myself when I’m stressed?
The basics: these things are important but can go out of the window when you’re feeling stressed.
Have you had a drink (of water, or squash if you don’t like water)? If you often forget to drink, apps like Plant Nanny can be really helpful to give you a reminder
Have you moved your body in a way that is pleasurable to you, and is within your current capabilities? This could include gentle stretching, foam rolling, yoga, weights, running, or whatever makes your body feel good. Personally, I'm partial to running - by which I mean that mentally I usually hate the idea of it, but physically it makes me feel so much better (and it also has mental benefits for me after I've done it).
Have you been outside today? Some days are made for staying indoors, but exposing your body to some daylight can help to lift your mood and make it easier to sleep.
If you’re a person who has periods, using a tracking app or calendar can help you know when you might be reacting slightly differently due to an influx of hormones.
When you’re struggling, using things that activate some or all of your senses can provide much-needed grounding and can bring you back into yourself, allowing you to think more clearly. This might include things like scented candles, bubble baths, face masks, weighted blankets, music - anything that is grounding to you.
Make sure you’re not using something unhelpful as a crutch – alcohol, drugs, and smoking. If you are, and you would like help giving up, the NHS website is very helpful, or you might wish to consider speaking to a therapist.
Stress is often unavoidable, but by using basic planning techniques you can help yourself anticipate and manage some of the difficulties that can arise:
Do you have any other useful tips for managing stress? Let me know in the comments. If you're struggling with stress and want more advice, get in touch.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects