What is stress? It’s when your body goes into “fight or flight” mode because of a perceived threat. Physically, your body releases cortisol—stress hormones—and you feel a burst of adrenaline, a quickening of your pulse, and a redirection of blood from your extremities so you literally can’t think clearly. This stress response can often be triggered when you feel you don’t have the resources to manage a challenge you’re facing. And over time, through repeatedly experiencing stress and walking through life with the stress response triggered on a day-to-day basis, it becomes a set point: a new normal. It can affect your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
So, every effort made to stop stress in its tracks when it arises, shifting yourself into a calmer state, is worth it in the long run: you’ll live longer, be happier, and be more beautiful inside and out. Here are some shortcuts to process stress in the moment and some practical ways to build coping skills into your lifestyle, reducing stress long-term to live your best life.
Stop and notice when your breathing is shallow and your heart is racing—a good indicator you’re in the grips of a stress response. It can feel like you’re treading water and panic is setting in. Instead, take three deep, long, slow belly breaths, which will immediately change your brain chemistry and slow your heart rate, giving you a feeling of calm so you can get your footing again.
Your mind is spinning or even shutting down in a stressful moment. So, plant your feet firmly on the ground, whether sitting in a chair or standing, and close your eyes. Feel the earth supporting you, holding you up, and imagine bringing your spinning energy from the top of your head down to your feet. This will distribute the intensity centered in the mind throughout your body, while drawing powerful, grounding, positive energy from the earth. Keep breathing deeply as you visualize the energy moving downward. And go one step further: bring that energy from the earth to your heart center and allow it to swirl there. Tune in to your heart, the center of you, and breathe into that area. They say the road from head to heart is the farthest journey. With some concrete intention and visualization, it doesn’t have to be,
Remind yourself that whatever is causing you stress right now will pass. This is just a moment in time. Feelings of panic, anger, fear, resentment, or any other overwhelming feelings aren’t facts—they are transitory, and we can just let them pass on through. Another helpful tidbit along the same lines: if you’re hysterical, it’s usually historical. If emotions are running high, we can let them pass through to the best of our ability, but it might also be that something from our past has been triggered. So being compassionate is key. It may not make a ton of sense why we’re feeling so out of control. We don’t waste too much time trying to pinpoint the “why.” Instead we…
Don’t abandon yourself by seeking external solutions. Just breathe and stay present with whatever is moving through you. Sit with the big rolling feelings as they surface. We are so conditioned to want to feel good all the time that when certain feelings don’t fit into our idea of happiness, we label them “bad.” Thinking something’s wrong, we run toward food, drugs, alcohol, binge-watching TV, sugar, and other options for a quick fix—which only makes us feel worse and perpetuates a vicious cycle. Most important, when we do that, we lose an opportunity to heal ourselves so we can feel more whole.
Before taking any action (which most likely will be a RE-action), first commit to doing nothing. If you don’t take this moment to pause, you may do something you will later regret. You want to have restraint of pen and tongue here and know that you aren’t in the ideal mindset to respond to whatever is at hand. It can wait.
Sit with a blank piece of paper and jot down what’s coming up for you in the moment of stress. Write it all out—the good, the bad, and the ugly—with no intention of sending it or sharing it with anyone. It’s for you to get whatever is on your mind out of your system and onto paper. It’s a kind, permissive way of accepting where you are in that moment with no judgement, giving voice to what needs to find expression through you. If it doesn’t have an outlet, it gets repressed and keeps showing up unpredictably, and the stress cycle continues.
Set your timer for five minutes, sit wherever you are, close your eyes, and just focus on the breath coming in and going out. You can repeat a phrase or mantra on each in/out breath, or focus on the space between breaths. If the mind wanders, simply notice it and, without judgement, gently bring the mind back to the breath. We don’t judge whether we’re doing it right or try to control the thoughts; we just turn ourselves over to the breath for those five minutes and trust the process. Increase the time as you feel more at ease with your practice, aiming for 15-20 minutes.
Cultivate the idea that everything is as it should be. It doesn’t mean we have to like it, but we do have to accept it as it is, and maybe go one step further by leaning into the spiritual tenet that “nothing is happening out of turn. It’s all unfolding for my highest good.” It’s happening for me, not to me. From that place of acceptance, we can take actions to bring about change if we’re not happy with situations the way they are. But that initial resistance to the situation as it is causes us pain and stress. So our first step is to practice radical acceptance around what’s happening.
The power of changing your thoughts to change your stress levels cannot be underestimated. Ask yourself, “what was I thinking that just caused me stress or panic?” Pinpoint that specific thought and then replace it with its opposite. It can look like this: “No one likes me at work, I’m going to lose my job, and I’ll be homeless.” Don’t laugh—this is how our monkey-mind jumps right to worst-case scenarios and fear-based outcomes. No wonder the stress response gets triggered.
This thinking creates a negative feeling, which turns into a reactive action to offset that awful outcome. A behavior emerges, which can lead to a pattern of being and, over time, you have created a personality of someone who is chronically stressed. You want to try to stop that thought in motion and supplant it with something uplifting. Even if you don’t fully believe it in the moment, you can “act as if.” Doing so will instantly create a feeling of well-being and serenity. This will eventually change the neural pathways that have been etched into grooves in your brain by worry, fear, and anxiety. With some concrete intention and visualization, you can become that optimistic, uplifting human you’ve always wanted to be. It gets easier to notice negative thinking over time, I promise.
Ryan Haddon is an ICF Certified Life and Spiritual Coach (ACC), a certified Hypnotherapist, and Meditation Teacher. She has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for over 30 years. She is passionate about helping people create their best lives by coming into alignment and resonance with who they are, clearing away all that no longer serves, and helping them move closer to their highest vision for themselves. She works remotely with clients globally, and does workshops privately, for corporations, as well as at wellness retreats.
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