Managing Stress and Anxiety

Woman holding head screamingWhen we’re stressed hormones course through the body preparing us for fight/flight/freeze. While this is adaptive for brief times of crisis, chronic stress takes a physical, emotional, and mental toll. Most of us have experienced the tense shoulders, stiff neck, or stomach ache that accompanies stress. What you may not know is that the effects go much beyond these symptoms. The body is on alert; problem solving and the creative process are luxuries that are sidelined. Paradoxically, being too stressed can also lead to over-thinking, which disrupts flow.

There are many tools for managing stress and anxiety. The simplest and most portable is deep breathing. Ideally the belly will go in and out with each breath. This may take practice; breathing while leaning way back (or lying down) with one hand on the chest and one on the belly can help. Focus on the breath. The mind will wander; when it does, gently (and without judging) return focus to the breath. According to psychotherapist Don Altman, MA, LPC, author of One-Minute Mindfulness, research shows that after only 20–30 seconds of relaxation breathing, the body begins calming. The body’s calming includes lowered blood pressure, increased alpha (calming) brain waves, and decreased pulse. All of us can find a minute or less to gain these benefits; even if it’s on a bathroom break in the midst of an insanely busy day. (Unless, of course, your toddler has followed you into the bathroom.)

There are many variations on deep breathing. You can do 5-2-7 breathing: breathe in to a count of 5; hold it for a count of 2; exhale to a count of 7. Some like to add a calming phrase; it can be as simple as, “In with relaxation, out with stress.” A line or two from a favorite poem, prayer, or song works for some people.

Here are some fun adaptations for kids: Breathe in the smell of a flower and then blow off the petals. Lie on the floor, with a stuffed animal on the belly  and watch the animal go up and down. Make believe your belly is a balloon and fill it with air; when you exhale make the noise a balloon makes when you let the air out.

You can find apps for relaxation breathing, calming visualizations, or muscle relaxation.  Doing a computer search of these things yields good results too.