It’s pretty safe to say that things are tense in the world right now. You’ve probably tried everything to destress, from a glass (bottle?) of wine to binging Bridgerton. Not working? Part of the issue is that we’ve normalized the high level of anxiety we’ve all been experiencing for a year now. It’s starting to feel so normal to be anxious that we don’t take it as seriously as we should. In fact, many people are reporting that they feel fine…that is, until one small thing like dropping a spoon on the floor turns you into a sobbing mess. It’s called emotional exhaustion, and we all have it right now to some degree.
We’ve become used to feeling like this, so we keep piling things on like we used to. Even self-care can become just another thing we have to do. Take this, watch this, drink this – it all feels like work. There is another solution though. Slow down.
This is easier said than done, of course. Many people have jobs from home, kids or grandkids and a lot to juggle. However, scheduling even fifteen minutes a day to slow down can really reduce your stress and allow you to process everything that’s going on.
Another name you might have heard for this is mindfulness. It’s taking the time to experience things rather than just letting them happen. (There are a lot of definitions, of course, but for this purpose, this is the most relevant.)
There are a few ways you can start experiencing life again, rather than just letting it happen and hoping that dropping that spoon isn’t going to be the thing that makes you run screaming out into the street.
Name that Thing
One of the first exercises you can do when you’re feeling anxious or just need a mental vacation is to name things around you. Yeah, it feels silly. No one said you have to do it out loud. Name the colors around you. Name the items. Count spots on the ceiling. Just the act of doing this for a few minutes can slow your heart rate and take the edge off your nerves. In fact, even if you have a big chunk of time to slow down, doing this for a few moments can be the intro to your Zen vacation. It’s a technique that often helps with panic attacks. What we’re all experiencing right now is sort of a constant low-grade panic attack, so it’s going to help a lot.
We’ve all heard about having a personal mantra. You don’t have to make it super deep and profound though. Just the act of repetition of a phrase can help you get through all of this. It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else. In fact, it can be anything from “I am the storm” to “I’ve got this,” to “I love books.” Breathe slower than you’ve been breathing, whatever that means for the moment, and say it slowly – that’s the key – over and over again until you’ve gotten through it.
What happens when we repeat this to ourselves to get through hard moments is that it becomes a habit. Once that happens, the phrase can trigger a release. It doesn’t have to be words if that doesn’t work for you. For example, runners are told not to clench their fists to keep their form. One runner said she imagines holding a potato chip in each hand and trying not to break it. Maybe it’s a mental picture of your cat curled up on a sofa. If you use it often enough, it will start to calm you down immediately.
There is no better way to calm the mind and slow down than managing your breathing. It slows the heart rate and can even stop a panic attack in its tracks. You don’t have to learn any complicated techniques. You don’t even have to be sitting still. Just a slow breath in as you say, “Right now I am breathing in,” and a slow one out as you say, “And now I am breathing out.” Use any sentence you want, but think it slowly. Try it for ten slow breaths in and out. If you’re in a position to do so, you can try closing your eyes. Imagine your jaw loosening and dropping as if there was a weight hung from the back of your jaw instead of just opening your mouth wider. You can also imagine your eyebrows sliding down the outside of your face. (It may sound creepy at first, but just the visual of that will make you relax the space in between them. Nature’s Botox!) Try it right now for ten breaths and see what a difference it can make.
Put One Foot in Front of the Other
We all know that exercise is good for stress reduction, but if we’re in the middle of an anxious moment, slowing down is better than heading out for a half-marathon or a weightlifting session in front of the TV. A walk or a hike are great options. Walking, especially in a park (with a mask on) will really help you focus on something other than work/kids/money, etc. We’re not talking about speed walking here. The point is to move, yes, but it’s also to look at your surroundings and remember that the news/social media/constant bombardment with alerts isn’t the only thing out there. Try turning off your phone as you walk or hike and use the naming exercise as you go. You’ll be stunned at how fast things start to seem calmer.
Pick Up a Favorite Book
New stories are wonderful, and we highly recommend them, but if you’re having a stressful moment, picking up a book or a poem that you already love is a great way to get some relief. We may not be able to hug our friends right now, but books and poems can be just as familiar. The relationship that we have with characters in books that we love is called a “parasocial relationship” and it can be as comforting as one with another person. Revisit a book you loved as a child and say hi to the characters you miss. Go on an adventure where you already know the ending. Sometimes that alone can take away the stress, since the uncertainty of our current moment is often the thing causing the stress. Tell Dumbledore we say hello.
Write that Book Already
Do you have a book inside you? Maybe an idea for a great fiction story, or poetry, or your memoir has been rattling around inside you for some time. What better time to carve out time to write than now when you may finally have that extra time at hand? Putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, can help you get into a zone of creativity that also provides focus, release, and a feeling of accomplishment. Need writing tips and news? You can get that from Black Château’s blog.
Shut Off your Screen
It’s hard to put down the phone and unplug from social media. It’s become a habit, and it can often be wonderful. Right now, though, it’s full of non-stop news, conspiracy theories and a whole lot of hate. It’s seductive, the idea of knowing everything that’s going on, but it can overtax our brains.
Twitter/Facebook/TikTok will all be there when you get back. Set a time in the evening when you plan to turn it all off and put your phone in another room. You can even set yourself a timer if you’re in front of a computer. Even an hour break from social media will become a thing you look forward to every day. We can all use something to look forward to right now.
Finally, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone is feeling the stress. Nothing is wrong with you. Give yourself some time to process something other than constant news and remember to breathe. We’ll all get through this together.
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