It’s only natural to feel squeezed from all the change and uncertainty swirling in our world. Anxiety, fear, and grief are naturally stimulated by such events. We can easily find ourselves feeling foggy and overwhelmed. Here are 3 quick ways to change our emotional state—all totally under our control. Try one or more; odds are you’ll feel a shift toward more ease and calm. I know I’d welcome that right now–how about you?
Move Your Body
As we notice our own anxiety–perhaps a tightness in the upper back or lower neck, or maybe a lowered tolerance for frustration–it can meet the anxiety of others and expand, like smoke from a smoldering fire. A trip to the grocery store can feel like a commando mission: extract the kidnapped toilet paper and exit as quick as possible. With perceived threat surrounding around us, our body is naturally on guard.
It’s how we’re wired. You’ve probably heard the terms, “fight, flight, or freeze.” They describe the behaviors or our sympathetic nervous system that helps us survive. Movement helps discharge the charged state of our bodies and all the associated hormones that have our bodies ready to fight or flee. Under high stress we might even freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights.
Where to start? Simple and easy. Walking is good—it is low impact and gets you moving. Maybe it’s just up and down the stairs in your house, or to the mailbox and back. If you need a more high energy workout, then run the stairs. Do push-ups, sit ups, jump rope, yoga, Pilates–whatever works for you. If you have to take in news, adding some movement or exercise while you listen can help burn off the stress.
Keep the benefits accumulating by tracking your activity. Perhaps it’s just making a list or a journal entry each day. Maybe it’s making a spreadsheet and posting it in a visible place in your home. Whatever the movement and the tracking method, make sure you get your daily dose. You’re building momentum, and muscle. It’s great self-care and good for your well-being—so you have the energy and emotional fuel to help others.
If you have health limitations, check in with your doctor before starting. There are likely many options for movement that are a healthy fit for you. If you catch yourself slipping toward freeze, or a foggy state, know that movement is a lifeline and is always there for you. Move your body, change your state—simple. Doable. Good for you, and good for those around you, too.
While the sympathetic system helps ensure our survival, we are not designed to be in “fight, flight or freeze” continually. It’s not healthy or productive. We’re also wired with another system, the parasympathetic system, to help us “rest and digest,” and recover. So we can’t visit our favorite beach right now, or maybe not even our favorite hiking trail or park. But we can do many other things that stimulate our parasympathetic system. Music is one such thing. Let’s explore it a bit more.
Athletes use it; artists use it; some surgeons use it in the operating room. Music helps regulate our mood and energy. Fast, high-tempo music is energizing; slower and softer can help us relax, supporting our parasympathetic system as it does its important work. If you have the skill, create it. Sing to it. Share it. The music of nature can be uniquely calming and soothing–gentle waves, crickets in the forest, rainfall. Find and use whatever music resonates with you.
Of course we know music is always available. And we often forget when we need it the most. Again, it’s our wiring—when our ”fight, flight, or freeze” system activates, our thoughts narrow to focus only on the threat and the goal of survival. We forget about those healthy activities that help us feel better. We all need reminders, ways to track the activities that help us calm and soothe ourselves. Ideally we’re in parasympathetic mode the majority of the time, with a sympathetic boost reserved for times of higher threat and focused action. So go ahead: treat yourself, and your parasympathetic system, to your favorite music today.
Music traces lasting memories in the circuitry of our brains—circuitry so deep it’s even less affected by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals with Alzheimer’s who have reached a place where they usually do not speak sometimes join in song when they hear music from their younger days. The gentle ways of music are still mysterious; they affect our brains in ways we don’t fully understand. Yet we are able to fully enjoy anytime–day or night. It can soothe and calm us, lifting our spirits and our energy.
When we know the melody or the words to a song, it feels predictable—we know what’s coming. That’s safe, and soothing. Music, suggests neurologist and brain researcher Michael Trimble, is “…a language of feeling. Musical rhythms are life rhythms…tensions, resolutions, crescendos and diminuendos, major and minor keys…” The philosopher Susan K. Langer extends this perspective. Music, she notes, “reveals the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach.”
In very important ways, music can help us feel, and perhaps even heal. By helping to access our hidden and unconscious emotions, it allows them to flow through us rather than build up in tension, pain, and stress. Pause for just a moment and reflect: has music ever brought you to tears? Now is a wonderful time to welcome music and all the emotions it can bring…tears, longings, relief, and gratitude. Perhaps even relief, and wonder. Give yourself permission to experience your feelings more deeply through music.
Fortunately our bodies take care of essential functions like breathing. I’m so glad I don’t have to remember to do that all day and night. We can tap into natural wiring by slightly altering our breathing to bring more relaxation to our bodies. A more relaxed body leads to calmer emotions. It’s simple—try it right now: Inhale through the nose for 5 seconds; pause, and exhale slowly and completely through the mouth for 5 seconds. You may find it helpful to count, silently saying one, one-thousand; two, one-thousand; three, one-thousand—up to five. Do this kind of “box” breathing for 1-2 minutes. Go on—try it right now. I’ll wait right here for you to return.
Did you notice any difference? Perhaps a bit more calm? Research suggests that this kind of breathing activates our parasympathetic system and contributes to stress reduction. Add deep breathing when you are washing your hands, or whenever you notice your body feeling tense. Consider spending 30-60 seconds of deep breathing on bathroom breaks, before drinking your coffee, or before starting a meeting. Any frequent activity can be an anchor—a reminder to treat your body to a deep breath, or three. Give yourself the gift of a bit more peace. There are many additional and very helpful breathing exercises—explore them. I predict your body, and your emotions, will thank you.
Movement, music, breath–such small actions may seem inconsequential in the face of outsized stress. They are, however, totally in your zone of control. Small acts—moments for movement, breath, and music–add up. With each act of self-care we empower ourselves. So put on your favorite song, and let it flow through you. Feel the rhythm of breath, melody, and life restoring you. Just imaging you doing this inspires me. I hope you’re feeling a bit better—a little more hopeful knowing these simple things are always at your fingertips. And for sure don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. Others so want to help. By letting them help, you’d be giving them the gift of contribution. And that’s a win for all of us.