Switch from feeling stressed to calm… 3 quick tips.

The feeling of stress is unique to each and every one of you. It depends on your interpretation of your environment or reality I should say. How you react may be the result of habits or behaviours that you have adopted from all your influences in life and now they seem stuck with you. But you guessed right, if you have learnt a behaviour, you can also unlearn it.

I mentioned the stress reaction in my previous blog and how it all starts with a thought detected by the small gland in the brain called the amygdala.

“I got to get all my tasks done today. It has to be perfect. I have to get it right. I feel I’m running out of time. I don’t know how they will react. I’m predicting the worst possible outcome”. Does this sound familiar to you?

Writing those sentences has just triggered my stress response!

Did you know the amygdala which detects fear and then activates the stress response, always goes back to your baseline? And your baseline is whatever is familiar to you. That’s the important piece of information. Let’s pause and think what this means.

It means, if you are familiar with worry and have been most of your life, it becomes your default emotion, and that’s your baseline. This means we need to ask ourselves this question. “Do I know what calm feels like?”. Does calm actually feel uncomfortable for you? As we start switching from the sympathetic (stress) response to parasympathetic (calm) response, we may feel uncomfortable and almost crave being busy and stressed. I know, how strange but ever so true.

Here’s where the following tips can help you on your journey towards being more in the parasympathetic (calm) state. Here’s a quick recap, the sympathetic nervous system speeds things up and the parasympathetic counterpart, does the opposite, slows things down. For those who are unfamiliar with these terms or would like to know more about the autonomic nervous system, please check out the “Can stress affect my body” blog.

  1. Breathe

I can’t emphasise how the simple act of taking a deep breath can transform the way you feel in minutes. Let’s take a moment to check if you are breathing shallow or deeply. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your tummy. Take a deep breath in and see which part of the body rises first. We would like to see the tummy rise first. This means we are inflating our lungs fully, activating the diaphragm which in turns activates the vagus nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Now it’s your turn. Take a lovely long deep breath and see how you feel.

Now I always say to patients, practise deep breathing throughout the day. Each time you pick your phone, check an email or about to walk into a meeting, take some lovely long deep breaths and observe how you feel. Over time, you will automatically breathe deeply.

2. Move

How sedentary have our lives become? There are 168 hours in the week. We are sitting or being sedentary for sleep, meal times, work and travel. Add in social media or TV usage and we are left with a mere 19 hours in the week for movement. Does this shock you? This is not much time at all.

A 2010 analysis of ten different studies found that the biggest mood- boosting, stress-busting effects came from 5-minute doses of exercise, not hour-long sessions. So I say move for mental health!

Don’t have time? Play your favourite music and have a dance for 5 minutes, do some squats or jumping jacks, skip or even go for a quick walk in nature. You will be surprised how quickly your stress levels transform.

How about creating a work environment that forces you to be active? Here are a few examples; have walk and talk meetings, place your printer on the other side of the room and even stand every time you use the phone.

3. Sleep

Good ole sleep. Here are 3 questions to ask yourself about your sleep quality.

  1. Do you fall asleep easily?
  2. Do you stay asleep or wake up several times in the night?
  3. Do you wake up feeling tired?

We are looking for yes, no and no answers. Imagine having wonderful deep sleep each night. Research is saying 40% of Americans are chronically sleep deprived. This means they are getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night and this is equivalent to be being drunk!

So how can you improve your sleep? Here are a few tips. Avoid screen time before bed, reduce caffeine intake and try journalling to help externalise all those racing thoughts before bed.

More on the vagus nerve in the next blog. Stay tuned!

Disclaimer: This is general advice only. Please see your healthcare professional if you are suffering from stress and anxiety.

By Dr Shami Barathan