When it comes to reducing stress, there's loads of advice out there. From improving your sleep quality, doing yoga, practising meditation and spending time in natural spaces, to eating nutritious unprocessed food, working on your holistic wellbeing will definitely reduce stress and increase resilience.
But if burnout and stress is caused by an accumulation of 'micro-stressors' what can you do to reduce stress in the moment and short-circuit that build up of stress hormones?
First let me explain what I mean by micro-stress. These are the seemingly insignificant events that happen throughout your day that trigger a release of stress hormones.
They could be the alarm jolting you awake in the middle of a deep sleep cycle because you went to bed too late. It could be checking your phone while you struggle to wake up only to see that you've got dozens of new work emails, a friend has sent you a grouchy text and the news bulletin delivers more unhappiness about world events.
Or you remember that you didn't call your friend back and you feel guilty.
It's actually pretty easy to have experienced 10-20 micro-stress doses before you've even got out of bed in the morning.
That's why we need to take action to stop stress in its tracks and stimulate your rest and digest response.
Here are 6 practical strategies that can reduce momentary stress:
1. Box Breathing
Box breathing technique is inspired by pranayama breathing exercises; an ancient yogic practice of controlling the breath that has been shown to be beneficial in reducing stress and increasing feelings of relaxation. Box breathing's simplicity is its greatest strength, and it can be practiced anywhere, anytime you feel stress or anxiety creeping up on you.
Taking slow, deep breaths, inhale through nose for 4, hold the breath for 4, exhale through the mouth for 4, and hold the breath for 4 before we inhale again. It may help you to imagine a box or square, breathing in, holding your breath and exhaling for the same number of counts while you trace one corner to the next in your mind, all the way around the box.
2. Strike A Pose
When you feel stressed, check your posture. Quite often our worries become manifest in our bodies, making us slouch forward as though the weight of the world is on our shoulders. To correct your posture, try imagining a string being pulled up tall from the top of your head, lifting your chin, and another two from your shoulders being gently pulled back and down.
Another option is to strike a power pose such as the super hero pose, or standing tall with your fists on your hips and your chin lifted.
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is a fantastically effective method of reducing stress and a great way of learning how to tune in and recognise when stress is manifesting in your body. In short, it is a mindful breathing meditation that asks you to breathe in and squeeze and hold various muscle groups for 5 seconds, and then exhale and release all the tension.
You may prefer starting at your feet and then working your way up through the body finishing with the muscles in your face, or you may prefer to go the other way round. It is very adaptable to the time you have, as you can group muscle areas/areas of the body to make it shorter, and focus on individual muscles to make the meditation longer.
It is a very simple, but highly effective technique to learn, and if you want to have a go, you can download my instructions here.
4. Give Yourself A Hug
When you feel stressed, self-soothing touch such as self-hugging, or even just putting one hand on your heart and one hand on your abdomen, can trigger feelings of safety and relaxation. In a similar way to positive touch from a loved one, gently stroking your arms, shoulders and face and hugging your arms to your body stimulate sensors in your skin and trigger the release of oxytocin; the 'love hormone', helping to regulate emotions and pain.
5. Shake It Off
Next time you experience stress, fear frustration or worry, channel your inner Taylor Swift and literally shake it off. Imagine the feelings beading on your skin like water and start shaking it off, beginning with your feet and going all the way up to your head - in the same way a dog shakes itself to get rid of water.
Not only will you help rid yourself of the feelings, but if you're like me, most of the time you will realise how ridiculous you must look and end up laughing instead! A great way to boost endorphins and flip your emotions at the same time.
6. Re-focus Your Attention With Mindfulness
Stress is often caused by our worries about the past or the future; the 'I should have's', the mindreading or the catastrophising about something that may not even be in our control. When you notice your thoughts start to spiral and stress levels rise, bringing your focus back to the present moment can be very helpful.
Mindfulness - bringing your full attention to the present moment using your senses - is a great way to achieve this. There are hundreds of different ways of practising mindfulness, washing your hands, focusing on a particular smell or taste, or noticing nature.
One strategy I've been encouraging my clients to use involves Lego.
A much loved instrument of play and imagination in childhood, the magic of Lego is often overlooked as we become adults. But, having a few bricks in your pocket, or in a little pot on your desk, can give you a few moments of mindfulness as you bring your full focus to the colours, shapes, textures and build options available to you. Put simply, it gives your brain a break from whatever you were focusing on and encourages creativity.
Ten bricks should be enough to get you started, but if you want to have more flexibility the Lego Classic Creative Blue Bricks set costs less than £5 and contains 52 bricks, so could be perfect for a range of builds. I love the Lego Dots Cupcakes for this exercise, and find the endless pattern options help me stay focused, but I know they may not be everyone's cup of tea!
I hope you find the exercises detailed above useful in helping you to manage stress in the moment. Try various strategies and reflect on the impact they have and feel free to adapt and tweak them until they do.
As always, please note that the information in this article is not meant to replace medical advice If you experience stress on a regular basis you may benefit from speaking with your GP.
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