Question: What do you get if you cross a word nerd with a wellness practitioner during April’s Stress Awareness Month?
Answer: The A to Z of Stress Busting!
Follow me as I take you through the alphabet, exploring the positive and negative side of stress with each letter.
Because there IS a positive side to stress: your stress response is there to protect you. Once you can better understand how your nervous system works, you can better manage your response to stress, your mindset around stress and the quality of your daily life.
Join me as we explore the A to Z of Stress Busting!
A is for …
I hate to start with ANXIETY … but this is the beginning and it is something we all experience.
What is ANXIETY?
ANXIETY is a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread that doesn’t go away.
The difference between ANXIETY and FEAR is that anxiety is internal – you could explain it as perceiving an anticipated threat. For instance, an upcoming interview, a presentation, or having to meet people.
In comparison, FEAR is a perceived immediate threat, usually interpreted through one of your senses: a loud bang, a physical touch, a scary sight, a smell like smoke or a horrid taste like something bitter.
Both ANXIETY & FEAR trigger your stress response. The brain can’t tell the difference between ANXIETY & FEAR.
Luckily, A is also for AWARENESS.
Cultivating AWARENESS around your ANXIETY, what triggers it, how to calm it, is an essential step in developing your stress busting skills.
AWARENESS means taking time to check in with yourself? To ask yourself why you’re feeling ANXIOUS. To remember that you are not your ANXIOUS thoughts.
One of the most powerful tools to help with ANXIETY is your BREATH – and that is what we will be exploring with the letter B tomorrow.
B is for…
BURNOUT – what a terrible word to apply to a human condition. I have witnessed the devastation burnout has inflicted on guests who come on a retreat as part of their burnout recovery.
The term was coined in the 70s by psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger, who himself suffered a burnout & then went on to analyse his own experience.
The globally recognised researcher is this field is Christina Maslach; she pioneered the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a framework for identifying and measuring burnout.
In her book The Truth About Burnout Maslach says, “…the causes lie more in the environment than in the individual.”
This is the most important point to remember when you are experiencing burnout or you have a burnout sufferer in your home, social or professional circle – there should be no shame attached to this syndrome.
Be kind to yourself & to your colleagues. And remember, your health and wellbeing is always more important than your work.
B is also for BREATH
BREATH is life.
It is also one of the bodily functions that we can control and this makes breath a fantastic stress busting tool.
When you are in a stressful situation, your breathing will get faster, shallower and irregular. Your body is responding to the stress and preparing for ‘fright or flight’ – it wants to keep you safe. In this stressed state, your prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain – is impaired while the survival part of the brain takes over.
By changing the rhythm of your breath, and slowing it down, you stimulate your vagus nerve, responsible for the body’s ‘rest & digest’ activities. Triggering this branch of your nervous system means you begin to calm down and your ability to think rationally and deal less emotionally with the stressful situation is made possible.
One of the easiest ways to slow your breathing is to lengthen your exhale (so it’s longer than your inhale).
I like to find a piece of music of 2 – 3 minutes long, and then I use that as a timer for a calming breathing break at my desk or wherever I am. Try it!
C is for…
CHEST BREATHING – This is often how you breathe when you are anxious. You are taking small, shallow breaths into your chest. You are using the accessory breathing muscles such as your shoulders and neck muscles, rather than your diaphragm, to move air in and out of your lungs.
This shallow breathing pattern is not only inefficient but it prolongs feelings of anxiety and keeps signally to your brain that you are not safe.
To break this breathing pattern, you need to learn to control your breath. The first thing to do, when you notice you are breathing into your chest, is to breathe out. Take a few slow deep breaths in and breathe out with a big sigh. Maybe even shrug your shoulders at the same time.
Now breathe through your nose in a slow, gentle, rhythmic way until you feel your shoulders relax & the tension drop out of your chest area. Spending time to master this type of deep, slow breathing tells your brain that you are safe and add another technique to your stress busting tool kit.
C is also for COPING MECHANISMS
How do you cope when you are feeling stressed? Do you have some favourite (healthy) coping mechanisms?
Here are some I rely on most days:
~Enjoying a walk or a pause outdoors – nature has a way of helping us disconnect our thinking mind and connect to our natural surroundings through our five senses.
~Doing something with my hands in my kitchen or garden.
~Brainstorming the problem with pencil & paper (and perhaps a friend).
~Making time for hobbies that challenge me and bring me joy.
~Sharing with friends – even if not always face to face.
~Exploring a relaxing practice such as yoga, breathwork, mindfulness, meditation (still struggle with that one).
Healthy COPING MECHANISMS are acts of self-care. They are stress busting, comforting, help create resilience and boost feeling of self-worth.
D is for DYSFUNCTIONAL BREATHING
Your body automatically switches to chest breathing, with a faster rate and more shallow breaths, when you are fearful or anxious. Sometimes, if the stress doesn’t ease, you can remain stuck in this upper-chest breathing mode which puts the whole body under pressure.
When you’re anxious, it’s very hard to tackle your emotions because you’re stuck in a kind of ‘anxiety loop’. One way to help yourself, is to deal with the physical side of stress – the breathing. By taking conscious control of your breath you can calm your mind – this is known as bottom-up regulation.
Start with some long, slow stress busting exhales to break the fast breathing pattern. Then spend a couple of minutes – or the length of a song – doing some deep, calm breathing. Once the physical side of stress has been managed, you can address the emotional side.
D is also for DIAPHRAGM
Your main breathing muscle, the DIAPHRAGM, forms the upper surface of the belly. This huge muscle separates the chest area (housing the lungs and heart) from the belly area.
The diaphragm works like a piston – when it contracts it pushes down on the belly, displacing the organs outwards. This creates space for the lungs to expand, drawing in air from the outside to fill the void.
This gives the appearance that the belly is filling and unfilling with air when, in reality, the belly is merely moving in and out with every breath. This deep, diaphragmatic way of breathing is more commonly known as belly breathing.
Give it a try by placing one hand on your belly while you breathe in and out for a few rounds. You can also lie down, with your legs bent and feet close to your buttocks. This gives you the softest possible belly and helps with your diaphragmatic – or belly breathing – practice.
The DIAPHRAGM is your number one stress busting muscles in the body – get to know it!
E is for
Depleted energy levels. No motivation. Your strength has literally been ‘drawn off’. EXHAUSTION occurs when you are sleep-deprived, working hard, dealing with a lot of stress and ‘busyness’. Exhaustion is a signal from your body to take a break, get more sleep and relieve some of the pressure and stress – much easier said than done!
When you are feeling exhausted, use what energy you do have sparingly – focus on the essential tasks and activities that boost your energy. Put yourself first and rest, rest, rest!
E is also for
Emotions are just a state of mind; they come and go. Happy. Sad. Angry. Excited. Hurt. Your emotions arise from the way you think and contemplate things. Sometimes this is positive: you’re excited about something, you’re happy, you feel positive.
Sometimes you get hooked into negative contemplation or someone or something provokes you and you feel frustrated and angry. This stimulates the brain to trigger your flight or fight response so ideally this is where your skills in self-regulating your emotions come in.
If you can increase the length of time between stimulus (what has hurt or annoyed you) and response, you have enough time to bring your body back from a flight or fright response.
The wonderful Victor Frankl explains it so eloquently in his writing, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Some slow, deep, rhythmic breathing is a wonderful self-soothing technique to avoid an emotional outburst, or simply counting the beats of your breaths, maybe 4 in and 6 out, or a pattern that helps you feel calm and back in charge. Try it!
F is for
FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE – these are responses that help you cope with perceived threats. The responses are involuntary and part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), more specifically the branch called the Sympathetic Nervous System. People can react differently to dangerous or traumatic events.
With a FIGHT or FLIGHT response, the heart & breathing rate increase as more oxygenated blood is sent to the muscles & brain, muscles tense ready for action, pupils dilate to allow in more light as well as other changes. The person either stays to FIGHT the danger, or takes FLIGHT to keep themself safe.
With a FREEZE response, the person is unable to move, the heart rate drops and the muscles tense. It is thought that FREEZING may allow the brain time to respond to the threat or it may keep a person safe or cause an attacker to lose interest.
Whichever reaction you experience, once the danger has passed you generally find yourself exhausted from the hormones your body has secreted and the experience itself. Be gentle with yourself as you recover. If you find you are struggling to recover from a traumatic event, even so ago, you may need to seek professional help to support your recovery.
F is also for FREEDOM
Learning to manage your stress response and even ‘befriending’ your body’s way of protecting you from stressful experiences is what can finally give you a certain amount of FREEDOM.
It does not come easily; you have to work at it every day. Taking time to build awareness around your stress response during this Stress Awareness Month of April is an act of self-care.
And actively stimulating the other branch of your ANS – the Parasympathetic Nervous System – to activate the Rest & Digest response helps to balance your nervous system. This can be done with breathing techniques, releasing muscle tension by stretching/doing sport/yoga, meditating, journaling or writing practices, sitting or walking in nature.
[More stress busting tips when we get to the letter R – Rest & Digest]
G is for
GO! GO! GO!
Where are you going? What are you doing?
In our business culture, we are feted for our doings. Proclaiming them makes us feel validated. But constant doing comes at a price. We become enslaved by our doings. They rule our business and home lives as if we have stepped onto a doing travelator with no end. There is pressure to do, deliver and, of course, delete from the to-do list!
When you live life always on the GO, always focussing on the next place you need to GET to, you are not living in the present moment.
Life is a series of moments, strung together, so let’s take a ‘moment’ today to stop, breathe, and really be present. Explore how that feels…
G is also for GRATITUDE
Thankfulness. We have so much to be GRATEFUL for. The air we breathe. Mother Earth. The sun in the sky today!
How often do you take the time to feel GRATEFUL – even for the smallest pleasure or moment of joy? Research has shown that practising GRATITUDE makes a positive impact on your emotions. GRATITUDE makes you happier. GRATITUDE makes you feel better about yourself. GRATITUDE boosts your psychological wellbeing.
At the end of my morning breathwork practice, my breath coach always asks us to feel GRATEFUL for a person, place and thing in our life. So I invite you to do the same…
H is for
or put another way, over-full.
Imagine you were blowing up a balloon and you kept on blowing when you reached the balloon’s normal capacity. The balloon would be taut & you wouldn’t be able to fit in any more air … unless you let some air out first.
This is a basic analogy of what happens when you breathe into the upper chest area and stay breathing that way. Your lungs become full of air – or HYPERINFLATED – and your ribs are over-expanded. You can’t open up the ribs to let any more air in. Meanwhile, your brain (and muscles) are signalling for more oxygen. The only option is to let out some air to take in some air – and this starts a breathing pattern where you are breathing more rapidly with small sips.
As you can imagine, it’s inefficient, and triggers a whole range of another knock-on effects.
What you need to do is
[I know, a cheating letter H, but it’s the solution to Hyperinflation]
What you need to do is deflate the lungs – or let all the air out so that you can breathe in a full lungful of (fresh) air.
I like to guide people to breathe in and then let all the air out of their lungs with a ‘Ha’ sound, or a big sigh. Do that a couple of times and you will notice the person’s shoulders dropping and the chest deflating.
Another way is to breathe in and then blow the air out as gently as possible through pursed lips. Make a small O shape with your lips and gently blow out until you have nothing left to blow. Then slowly inhale… continue blowing out gently through the lips, and inhaling through the nose.
Aim for shorter breaths in and longer breaths out.
This is a great stress busting practice and especially easy to do at a desk, when you feel your shoulders creeping up to your neck with stress.
Nearly all breathworkers use the mantra:
“If in doubt, BREATHE OUT!”
I is for INSOMNIA
Or sleep deprivation. Or poor sleep. I notice that a lot of guests who come on my yoga retreats complain about INSOMNIA. I have also noticed that they sleep through the night on the second night. Why?
- Because they do yoga which helps to release tension in the muscles.
- Because they do breathwork which also helps them unwind and relax.
- Because they go for a walk on the beach where they explore some self-led mindfulness practices which gets them out any anxious thinking loops & reconnected to nature.
- Because they are welcomed into a safe space where they can share their difficulties.
- Because they eat nourishing food and go to bed satiated in many ways.
When you’re ‘tired but wired’ you need to release the pressure valve:
~Release tension in the body by stretching, walking, dancing.
~Practice a calming breathing technique like making your exhales longer than your inhales.
~Get outside into nature and breathe in some fresh air.
INSOMNIA is very complex, so I definitely don’t mean to make light of it by saying it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3. Try some of the above and see how you get on.
I is also for INHALE
INHALING or breathing in, should definitely be happening through the nose (unless you have had an injury, or severe allergies or another reason like that).
The nose is perfectly designed for INHALING. It warms, moistens, cleans, filters and finally regulates the quantity of air that comes into the lungs.
Breathing in through the mouth dries the mouth, gums and throat – a moisturised mouth will stay healthier for longer.
INHALING through your nose forces you to use your diaphragm – this type of belly breathing is the most efficient way of breathing. In an emergency, you will naturally use your mouth to INHALE more air ready for flight, and when you are running or exerting yourself at sport.
The mantra to remember is “Nose is king”, or “Shut yer trap!”
J is for JAW
As we’ve seen, the physical side of stress shows up in muscle tension – in the shoulders, chest area and neck, and also in the jaw. You are often not aware you are subconsciously clenching your jaw until you start to feel pain in the jaw area or experience headaches.
If you’re a JAW clencher and you sit at a desk a lot, make sure your sitting posture is good. You may find you tend to work with slightly hunched shoulders and your head leaning forward. Try to sit up straight, with your spine balanced on your hips and your head balanced on your neck (think – straight – as if you’re being measured against a wall). By sitting better, you will decrease muscle tension in your neck and shoulders and this could encourage the unclenching of your JAW.
Otherwise – smile! Smiling loosens tight JAW muscles. It also releases happy hormones (serotonin) – so fake it if you need to. Plus, smiling is contagious: smile to your colleagues or the people around you and help loosen those tight JAW muscles.
J is also for JOY
In her wonderful Ted talk about Where joy hides, and how to find it, Ingrid Fettel Lee lists cherry blossom, rainbows, bubbles, googly eyes and ice cream cones covered in sprinkles as bringing JOY.
JOY – a feeling of great pleasure and happiness, says the dictionary.
In the fast-paced world we live in today, we can miss the little moments of joy in our day. For me, these moments of joy appear when I’m out in nature: catching a glimpse of a barn owl flying along the creek, seeing a kid splashing through puddles or a wildflower growing in an unlikely place.
Once you start looking JOY, you’ll start to find it everywhere!
What moments of JOY can you ENJOY today?
K is for KAPUT
KAPUT means something is no longer working or effective.
I am going to rather harshly apply this term to an underused diaphragm. Our main breathing muscle, if the diaphragm isn’t exercised or is underused, then it no longer functions correctly. We use our diaphragm to breathe and speak, but also for posture.
There is a kind of chicken and egg scenario that happens with poor breathing habits and back problems. Did a back problem cause you to breathe less deeply and therefore more into the chest (to avoid back pain, say) or did breathing poorly cause you to have back problems?
Whatever the answer, you want to keep your diaphragm fit by using it to breathe daily, as opposed to remaining stuck as a chest or top breather due to continued stress.
So take a few deep breaths either sitting at your desk or lying on the floor – and feel your belly moving out as your diaphragm pushes your lower organs out of the way to allow your lungs to inflate.
K is also for KNOWLEDGE
I believe the more KNOWLEDGE we have of how our body works, the more likely we are to live a healthy life – both mentally and physically.
I didn’t know for years that it was an unhealthy breathing pattern that was causing me severe neck problems every time I got stressed. Gaining KNOWLEDGE about breathing – and my dysfunctional pattern – allowed me to retrain my breathing with a few simple exercises.
KNOWLEDGE is a wonderful thing – even if often we have to learn it the hard way!
L is for LOWER LUNGS
Did you know that stale air can accumulate in the lower lungs? The idea seems repulsive to me! I once had a haematologist as a guest on my Finding Space Retreat and she added that they can even see stale air on lung X-rays.
Ideally we want to breathe into the LOWER LUNGS as that is where there is the most surface area (and blood) for gas exchange to take place. If we are stuck in an upper chest breathing pattern due to stress, we are breathing very inefficiently and totally underusing our lung capacity.
Doing a technique like candle breath, where you inhale through your nose and exhale as slowly as possible through a small O in your lips to empty (as if you’re blowing out a candle) would be a useful practice to empty your lungs completely.
L is also for LOVE
I believe so much stress is caused because we are hard on ourselves. We don’t LOVE ourselves (enough). We set ourselves high expectations, we are harsh when we don’t get the results we want and we speak to ourselves in an unloving way.
So today, take some time to:
~Care for yourself in some way
~Give yourself some attention
~Say some loving words to yourself.
M is for MENTAL HEALTH
The whole point of Stress Awareness Month is to bring the subject of stress out of the shadows, to encourage people to talk about stress and how it may be affecting their MENTAL and physical HEALTH.
MENTAL HEALTH is the overall wellness of how you think, feel and behave.
Globally we have lived through so much in recent years: the pandemic, a switch to remote or hybrid work patterns, warring countries, a cost of living crisis …
We have all been impacted in one way or another.
Early signs of MENTAL HEALTH issues are:
- withdrawal from friends & family (into isolation)
- low energy & low moods
- changed eating & drinking habits
- feeling hopeless
- disinterest in activities that previously brought pleasure
- struggling to complete tasks (both at work & home).
- If you are struggling, or notice someone in your circle is struggling, then reach out.
Having support – both professional or in your social / family network – is key to recovery.
M is also for MINDFULNESS
My favourite description of this term is by Martin Strom, a Corporate Mindfulness Expert:
“Mindfulness is being attentive to and aware of what is happening right now in this moment, both internally and externally. That is all.”
The question to ask is, if you’re not being MINDFUL, what are you not aware of? If you’re too stuck in thought loops or listening to negative inner voices, what are you missing out on in the present moment.
Jon Kabat Zin, the pioneer of mainstream MINDFULNESS talks about not getting trapped in the “Me, me, me narrative”. I love that simple way of telling myself to get out of ‘I, me, my’ mode and back into the present moment.
What mindful activities do you slip into your day to cultivate more presence?
I find enjoying some Mindful Cooking in my kitchen to be one of the greatest of stress busting activities!
N is for NEGATIVE VOICE
You have one. I have one. The voice of doubt, of fear, of recriminations.
The best habit I ever took up was Morning Pages. I roll out of bed onto the page and write. Sometimes Bridget the whinger is there, or Bridget the fretter. I let her have her moment and then I move on down the page. It seems giving the podium to the NEGATIVE VOICE is a great stress busting move. It helps to see it as just that – a voice, and not reality.
N is also for NATURE
One of the fastest ways to get out of negative thought loops is to go out into NATURE. We are sentient beings, and once outside, our five senses start to send us signals. Smells. Sounds. Sights. Touch. Possibly even taste.
The sounds of NATURE are soothing compared to the modern-day stimulation we hear so much. Your over-worked pre-frontal cortex – used for thinking, reasoning, problem-solving – is given a break. This rest allows it to recover and can boost bursts of creativity – how often do you have a great idea on a walk?
Take some time today or this weekend to do some stress busting out in nature. Let her soothe you. Promote feelings of wellbeing. And stimulate all five of your senses.
O is for OVERRIDE
Your body, programmed to maintain the stable conditions necessary for survival, is constantly sending you signals.
Eat. Drink. Rest. Sleep. Procreate.
And so on!
Listening to these positive and negative feedback signals and balances is the purest form of self-care.
If you start ignoring them, or OVERRIDE the signals, you put yourself in peril.
Here are three areas where you could try to resist OVERRIDING your body’s signals:
- The tiredness override button. Quality sleep and relaxation are essential for to manage stress well.
- The recharge override button. Charge your batteries by doing something you love instead of another chore on the list.
- The social override button. As social creatures, we need to connect. Sometimes our role is to protect the people in our community and sometimes we need their support. Both roles help us build empathy, trust and ultimately resilience.
O is also for OXYGEN
When I think of OXYGEN, I think trees.
Trees make the OXYGEN we breathe to stay alive.
Quick refresher: Trees convert carbon dioxide and water into OXYGEN through photosynthesis. They transform light energy, captured from the sun, and use it to convert water and carbon dioxide from the soil into oxygen.
This means that trees and people have an interdependent relationship: trees take in carbon dioxide and release OXYGEN; we breathe in OXYGEN and breathe out carbon dioxide.
If you’re out in nature today enjoying the fresh air and practising some stress busting activities, be sure to thank the trees around you!
P is for PANIC ATTACK
I am lucky to have never had a PANIC ATTACK but I have taken three people to hospital who have been experiencing panic attacks.
The third person was a foreigner on the street in Beijing who had been dropped by a taxi opposite the hospital. As I cycled by he asked me to help him get across the road and I accompanied him into the hands of the professionals. I called his friends on his phone and stayed until they arrived. What struck me was the utter belief that he was going to die.
As the person witnessing someone else’s PANIC ATTACK, our job is to stay calm and ask how we can help. Speak slowly and simply. Reassure them the attack will pass. Offer to breathe slowly with them (although this is very hard when you are having an attack). Stay with them until they are better or someone comes to collect them.
P is also for PAUSE
Sometimes less is more.
The ultimate stress busting move.
Q is for QUICKENING HEART & BREATHING RATE
As we saw in F with the Flight or Fight response, the physiology of the body changes when you are faced with a real or imaginary threat.
Your heartbeat and respiration rates increase to fuel your body for a rapid response. Think of it like the priming of your body ready to fight or flee. Hormones are released which tense your muscles ready for action.
Understanding the body’s natural fight or flight response can help you cope with these changes in your body. When you notice that you are becoming tense, you can fall back on some stress busting ways to calm yourself and your body.
One way is to…
QUIETEN YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM (another more positive Q)
The only part of the Autonomic Nervous System that you can control is your breathing, so breath is one of the most effective ways to bring yourself back to calm.
To slow your breathing down, you may need to empty your lungs first. When you are scared, you often get stuck in an upper chest breathing pattern where your lungs stay inflated and you take small sips of air in and out.
Start by blowing air out through your mouth, or lift your arms and shrug as you exhale with a loud ‘ha’ sound. Do that a few times and then focus on making your out-breath longer than your in-breath. This sends signals to your brain that you are safe and your body will start to QUIETEN down.
You can do other calming practices such as gentle yoga, listening to music, finding a quiet place or finding someone to share your experience with. We all need to recover in different ways – find what’s right for you.
R is for REACTIVE
What’s the difference between REACTIVE and responsive?
When you are REACTIVE, it’s generally your emotions that are leading the way. Anger. Frustration. Rejection. Or another emotion.
When you are responsive, you take the time to shape your response. There is a gap between a stimulus and your response – and in that gap you give yourself time to respond from your head.
It’s not easy to do, it definitely takes practice. It all starts with awareness, so watch how other people react or respond and then how you react or act yourself.
R is also for REST & DIGEST
REST & DIGEST mode is the parasympathetic branch of the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) – I like to think of it as the green zone. This is where you want to live your life.
The red zone is the Fight, Flight or Freeze mode, or the sympathetic branch of the ANS. [See the letter F].
Yes, there are many external reasons that you end up in the red zone, but there are also many ways you can bring your body back into the green zone.
Here are three simple stress busting activities I do most days:
~Taking a break away from my desk in nature (usually a morning coffee break in my garden).
~Doing a breathing technique to calm the body (at my desk, in my bed, on my yoga mat or while walking…).
~Being in my kitchen. It’s about getting out of my head and back into my body by using my five senses. So much joy in my kitchen.
What stress busting activity could you do today to get back into the green zone?
S is for STRESSORS
STRESSORS are events or situations that cause stress. Some may come from your external environment, such as the big life events, work overwhelm, illness or injury, financial pressure (think we’ve all been feeling that one) OR from your internal environment, such as a lack of control, fear of change, inner criticism … and so on.
They all elicit a stress response from your body. Some responses you can recover from quite quickly when the event passes, but others may mean you are stuck in low levels of stress for a longer period of time. This is when it becomes harmful to your health.
It’s not always possible to escape a stressful event, the only thing you can try to manage is how you react to it – how you feel about it. Sometimes admitting the situation is out of your control can free you to focus on things in life that you can control … and that bring you joy.
Taking a few minutes to identify the stressors in your life is an interesting activity – you may find you can remove or avoid some by changing your behaviour or finding a stress busting action that will relieve that particular stressor.
S is also for STRESS SIGNALS
Pounding heart. Rising blood pressure. Rapid breathing. Sharpened senses. Tensing muscles. All signals that your body is responding to some sort of danger.
If there is no immediate danger, then knowing how to calm the physiological response through breathing can enable you to manage the mental side of the stress.
I have found that befriending my STRESS SIGNALS has allowed me to be kinder to my body – to appreciate it is only trying to protect me – and then guide it back to safety and calm.
T is for TIREDNESS
The art of energy management lies in understanding that you need to find balance.
There is no ‘one rule fits all’ for managing energy levels. There are activities in your day that fill you with energy and activities that deplete your levels.
You need different kinds of rest to replenish energy:
- Mental rest – release your mind from intellectual activity (like work) or negative thought loops by switching to a more sensory or manual activity.
- Physical rest – give your body a break to recuperate – from mini to maxi.
- Emotional rest – withdraw from interactions with people / relationships that are hard to handle (boundaries).
- Sensory rest – give your ears a rest by withdrawing to a quiet place and close your eyes to help you go inward.
Pick the stress busting rest that suits your needs at this moment and take an active role in managing your energy levels!
T is also for TENSION RELEASE
Part of the body’s stress response is to TENSE muscles ready for protective action. If your breathing patterns changes as well you will start to overuse your accessory breathing muscles and this leads to TENSION across your chest, shoulders and neck.
Sitting at a desk all day can also cause TENSION build up too – combine stress + deskwork and you are giving your body a lot to deal with.
There are so many ways to release TENSION, from taking a walk, dancing, moving around to more formal ways like a yoga or pilates class, gym session, a run etc.
If you don’t have much time and can’t go out, then a great stress busting way to release tension is to lie on the floor (or your bed) with your feet drawn up to your buttocks in semi-supine pose. This is the ultimate way to let your muscles relax.
Focus on your breath, take deep belly breaths and let the TENSION drain out of your muscles while your bones hold you in place.
U is for UNCONSCIOUS BREATHING
Also known as involuntary breathing. It’s a good job that breathing is automatic as sometimes you may not realise you are not breathing! You may be holding your breath (out of anxiety, due to fear or through concentration) and luckily you will experience something called ‘air hunger’ which triggers your diaphragm to contract and start breathing up again.
The magical thing about breathing is that you can also take control of it yourself, and that’s called ‘conscious breathing’. Taking a few minutes every day to consciously breathe helps you connect to your inner self.
And that’s the other U is for UNITE MIND BODY & BREATH
This is what we try to achieve with meditation. By taking your attention away from thoughts – by treating them like clouds scudding through the sky of your mind – you focus on how it feels to breathe. You sit in the stillness and turn your attention inwards. Slow conscious breathing helps to relax you and brings you a sense of calm and inner peace. Cultivate the art of stress busting with this fundamental practice.
V is for VAGUE
I truly believe the best way to manage stress is to be proactive and not VAGUE about how to manage the stress in your life. VAGUE means being uncertain about how to schedule in and use downtime to recuperate. Finding clarity around how to befriend your stress response will allow you to build new stress busting habits. Pick two to three practices that can help you bring your body to calm, release muscular tension, free your mind … [Check the letter F and O for some ideas].
V is also for VAGUS
The VAGUS nerve, also known as the VAGAL nerve, is one of the longest cranial nerves in the body, extending from the brainstem all the way down to the abdomen. The VAGUS nerve is responsible for controlling many different bodily functions, including the regulation of the heart rate, digestion, and breathing. It also plays a crucial role in the body’s relaxation response because the nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” functions.
There are many different ways to stimulate the VAGUS nerve, including deep breathing exercises, meditation and even gargling. In yoga we chant, hum, sing and breathe using ujjjayi or ocean breath which activates the vocal cords and in so doing stimulates the VAGUS nerve and the ‘rest & digest’ branch of the nervous system.
Finally – laughter stimulates the VAGUS nerve as well as lifting your mood – a fun stress busting action!
W is for WIRED & TIRED
When you are WIRED & TIRED, your body is craving sleep but you’re too hyper to relax enough to fall asleep. It’s a terrible state to be in because it starts a vicious cycle of being over-tired and over-anxious because you can’t sleep.
What you need to do is try to release the physical tension in the body: yoga, a walk, a run, a dance, lying in semi-supine pose (bones hold body in place, muscles can therefore relax), a hot bath, a shower, listening to calming music …. Something that helps you relax & release the physical tension.
Next you need to work on the mental or emotional tension. The next W is a great stress busting way to do that
W is also for WRITING
There are many ways to use WRITING to release stress and anxiety, such as gratitude journals, daily journals, bullet journals – you need to find the method that suits your life and schedule.
I use WRITING to support my mental health in three ways:
- Daily morning pages
This involves falling out of bed onto the page, where I fill three pages with longhand writing. You are not meant to re-read them or even keep them. You write them to unburden – then you start your day.
- Stream of consciousness
I use this exercise when something is troubling me or when I feel stuck in life. I set a timer for 10 minutes, I open a new Word document and I type without consciously thinking about what I’m writing. There is no self-editing, no correcting typing errors, you just let your thoughts and feelings take you deeper into your mind.
Try it – it’s truly enlightening to take a wander through your own mind.
- Parking space
I use a notebook and I use it to park ideas. Some of the ideas are decidedly wild – often dreamt up on walks along the beach – others are great but need to move out of my head onto the paper so I can get on with my work. I tend to mind-map them, with the central idea in the middle. I think drawing out ideas – seeing them visually on the paper – helps us to find clarity around them.
Stress busting exercises with a pen and paper … writing out our inner conversations. Better out of your head than in!
X is for eXcess
Everything in your body is about balance and when we’re talking about stress, it’s very easy to move into the realms of eXcess. When you push yourself too hard – due to internal or external drivers – you often pay the price later.
Whenever you have to give a lot, work hard or to eXcess, you need to offset that with superior down time that helps you to balance your nervous system & physiological needs. Only you know what you can pare back temporarily to create more space for rest and recuperation. You can push yourself hard – but you need to rest harder!
X is also for relaXation
In our fast-paced world, we often forget the importance of slowing down to let our mind and body recuperate. By carving out relaXation time, you can reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and boost creativity. Remember – taking time for yourself isn’t selfish – it’s a vital act of self-care.
What stress busting action could you take today to help you relax?
Y is for YOU
Are YOU prioritising yourself?
Are YOU putting your needs on the to-do list?
Are YOU listening to what your body requires?
Are YOU connecting to the inner YOU every day?
You are probably expert at looking after everyone else’s needs and find you put yourself last. Well how about reversing that?
Write down three things you’d like to do for YOU?
- A half-day with my sewing machine
- A walk on the beach with a thermos and snack in my backpack
- A half-day scouring charity shops for some new clothes!
Y is also for YOGA
When I was first invited to join a YOGA class, back in the early noughties, I was categorical that it wasn’t for me. Not because I wasn’t flexible. Not because I thought I couldn’t do it. But because I was convinced I would find YOGA boring!
Back then I was fit, fast and competitive – I couldn’t see the point of doing YOGA!
How thankful I am to my then colleague who dragged me kicking and screaming to my first class. I loved it instantly and YOGA has continued to be a part of my life for the last two decades.
YOGA has taught me:
- to slow down,
- to be more reflective and less reactive,
- to breathe,
- to connect with my body,
- to love my changing body,
- to be aware of my body whatever I’m doing (proprioception),
- to stay balanced (both physically, mentally & emotionally)
and it is at the core of my business working with people who need to find space, to better manage stress and to prevent or recover from burn out.
Come join a yoga class with me or come on a retreat and learn how to integrate this wonderful practice into your life.
I warn you – once you start yoga… you won’t stop!
Z is for ZAPPED
The neurons in your nervous system send electrical signals all over your body, so it’s not surprising that so many of the words for exhaustion are related to electricity: ZAPPED, frazzled, burnt out, fried …
To prevent that feeling of being ZAPPED, take a few moments in your day to balance your nervous system with a stress busting activity: relaxation, deep breathing, or a mindful cup of tea.
Z is also for ZEN
In contemporary language, ZEN is often used to mean: chilled, relaxed, rested, mellow, laid-back, or to be at peace with the world.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says: “Zen teaches that the potential to achieve enlightenment is inherent in everyone but lies dormant because of ignorance. It is best awakened not by the study of scripture, the practice of good deeds, rites and ceremonies, or worship of images, but by breaking through the boundaries of mundane logical thought.”
Not a Buddhist myself, my use of the word is definitely contemporary – I try most days to achieve little moments of calm where I can say I feel ZEN. The more you practise finding calm, the easier it is to deal with stress when life throws something at you.
And, so we started with A for ANXIETY and finished with Z for ZEN … perhaps that is what we are all striving for at the start of each day – to reach a little moment of ZEN with some kind of stress busting activity!