Updated: Sep 14, 2021
As discussed in a previous blog - “Finding Hope in a Hopeless Time”- this year has been full of high stress situations and choices. And the truth is, we -as humans- aren’t wired to navigate high-stress for extended periods of time. In fact, our system is specifically wired to help us navigate stress in bursts, by activating our fight/ flight/ freeze response so that we can escape a dangerous situation with increased adrenaline, quickened heart rate, and heightened awareness of the 5 senses. This activation of our sympathetic nervous system is an amazing survival skill, but unfortunately can activate anytime we feel under stress or threat, and can leave us feeling shaky, on-edge, irritable, and fatigued when our stress or threat is prolonged. Have you felt this way?
When people are stuck in stressful situations, it can be helpful to consider 2 areas:
- Stress Management
If there is a certain event or situation that is activating your stress response (i.e. election day), consider planning. Will you be able to manage your normal work schedule that day or the day after? Should you include more breaks or consider starting late/ ending earlier? Sometimes work stress or a busy schedule are unavoidable, have you considered how you will take care of you when you clock out? Would it be helpful to plan time to connect with supports or do you feel like it would be more helpful to prioritize some quiet time for yourself? If you’re a parent and quiet time sounds like a joke, could you plan for a family activity or save a new movie that would allow you some time to mentally unwind? While we can’t always control what will happen or unfold, we can control how prepared we are by acknowledging what will cause us stress and considering how to take care of ourselves.
Sometimes stressful situations occur unexpectedly, so it is also important that we have ways to manage stress in the moment. If you cleared your evening after an overwhelming day, what are you doing with that time to decompress? Are you distracting from the stress? When you only have a couple of minutes to yourself, do you have tools to acknowledge and address your stress? Awareness of when you feel your stress-response (sympathetic nervous system) activating is a great place to start. I think it is also really important to acknowledge that the part of our brain activated when we are anxious/ stressed does not process language, so… how do we communicate with it and tell it to calm down?
It is definitely an “actions speak louder than words” situation. Here are two approaches:
Take a moment to tune in:
Place your hands on your stomach and chest, close your eyes if you feel comfortable, and tune into your breathing. Is it fast? Slow? Does it fill your chest or your stomach/diaphragm? Can you feel it filling the back of your lungs?
Shift your attention to your entire body, do you feel tension or pain anywhere? Is your stomach in knots? Are your shoulders tight or released? Focus your breath into these areas. Release.
Check in throughout the day when you are able.
Focus on your 5 senses:
If you’re feeling like you’re in a fight/ flight/ freeze headspace, you can activate the calming side of our nervous system (our parasympathetic nervous system) by reminding your brain that you are safe in this present moment. One way to do this is by tuning in to our 5 senses, take a breath and ask yourself:
What are 5 things I can see? (name them)
What are 4 things I can touch? (touch them)
What are 3 things I can hear? (list them)
What are 2 things I can smell? (name them)
Can you taste anything?
With everything going on in the world, let alone for everyone personally, it is completely understandable and perfectly human to experience days or stretches of time where we feel more on-edge or activated. Just remember that this is not a sustainable way of being, and -although the world may remain stressful for some time- there are little things we can do to help our brain/body decompress. If you feel unable to turn off your stress-response, maybe it is time to reach out for support.