Daily life presents regular stressors, but as we navigate as a nation and global community the impact of an acute strain on our medical reality, daily stress may feel like it has significantly increased. How do we cope with augmented worry, anxiety, and stress? How do we take care of ourselves mentally and emotionally in a season of such uncertainty? Below are some gentle, effective tools for cultivating calm in a stressful season.
Part I. Name That Feeling.
What’s the difference between anxiety, worry, and stress? Quite a bit actually, and we can approach each one with a unique tactic for relief. Emma Pattee researched these approaches in her article for The New York Times, finding that there are indeed particular tools for addressing each of these uncomfortable feelings.
- Worry, Patte says, is “when your mind dwells on negative thoughts, uncertain outcomes or things that could go wrong.” It’s the mental/cognitive aspect of anxiety. While worry has its place in helping us as a species to survive, ongoing worry does not serve our wellbeing. Here are a few tactics for reducing worry:
- Set a worry budget. Give yourself a set amount of time to worry and process, then it’s time to redirect your thoughts. Pick up a book, listen to music, bake something. Distract yourself.
- Translate into action. Worried? Repeatedly thinking about something? Decide on an action to take that is concrete and relieving. Even if it’s small, setting up a plan and addressing it with action, being proactive about a goal or necessity you anticipate, can help you feel less worried and more in control.
- Put pen to paper. Journal, scribble, open up the laptop and let it all out. Process through writing, and like your worry budget for your thoughts, set a word count or time limit, then it’s time to redirect your thinking.
- Stress, Patte explains, is our physiological response to a stressor (a jarring external event). Stress has a long legacy with human survival instinct and is a deeply ingrained response. But, as with worry, there are concrete tools for working through a stress response that is hurting rather than helping you.
- Get real. Accept how you’re feeling. It’s okay to be stressed. It’s okay for your stress response to be different from someone else’s. No one has to feel how you do for your feelings to be valid, and their response isn’t invalid because yours is different.
- Get honest. Be frank with yourself about what you can and cannot control. Surrender can feel terrifying initially but ultimately it often inspires a sense of calm. When we release ourselves from a false sense of control, we can direct our energies to what is within our capacity to change, modify, and control, which can further mitigate that feeling of helplessness that we often associate with stress.
- Get active. If you need to stay indoors, hop on the treadmill, put on some music and dance to it while you cook, play an instrument, do a yoga routine, lift your weights, ride the stationary bike. If you can get outside, stretch your legs, unplug from technology and the news; simply connect with the sky above you, the earth beneath you, and let nature soothe your senses.
- Anxiety is when we feel both worry and stress, Pattee explains. It is important to note that situational anxiety is differentiated from anxiety disorder which often requires medication and ongoing medical care. This article addresses situational anxiety.
- Distract yourself. If you’re having an anxiety episode, redirect your thoughts and sensory experience because often talking oneself out of it is quite difficult. Turn on music, hold or touch something comforting, take a warm shower or bath with aromatherapies, move your body in any way that’s soothing.
- Check in with your body. Focus on a part of your body that doesn’t feel tight such as your hands or feet or knees (for instance, often you’ll feel a constriction or weight in your chest and throat). Wiggle those loose parts of your body and drive your awareness to them. Swing your arms, bounce your knees, count and flex your toes. It grounds you to your body while helping your focus redirect to a more peaceful sensation, thus reducing your anxiety experience.
- Minimize stimulants. Drink less coffee. Cut back on the sweets, alcoholic drinks, and soda pop. When you’re anxious, your sensory system is already elevated and on high alert. Caffeine, alcohol, and sugar will only exacerbate that aggravated feeling and can worsen your experience of anxiety.
Part II. Be Mindful.
As another article for The New York Times wellness blog writes, “It might seem crazy to want to be more conscious of illness and discomfort. Yet mindfulness — moment to moment, nonjudgmental awareness — may be exactly what your body most needs when you are run down and under the weather.” If you feel run down, whether with a cold or more severe sickness, take a moment to first acknowledge your feelings about your state of being—offer gentleness and acceptance for feelings of frustration, fear, and discomfort. Next, focus on a comfortable part of your body—if you can breathe easily, focus on slow, measured, deep breaths that can steady your heartrate and promote a sense of calm; if your breathing is more difficult, focus on something else like your hands, your feet, your arms, and feel their touch to the surface you’re resting on, experiencing their weight and comfort. Mindfulness is about lowering our stress response to any situation—offering acceptance and decreased resistance to discomfort or adversity. When we practice mindfulness, we welcome our bodies as they are, offer ourselves compassion for our unease, and in doing so, actually promote greater calm and peace, which can alleviate the more acute discomfort of feeling unwell or anxious.
Serenity is not an environmental guarantee, but as we face external stressors and unknowns, we have proven practices that minimize our discomfort, embrace our experience, and help us discover peace within ourselves, even in difficult times.