Sara Smyth discusses how to create new habits to help you manage your response to stress.
We’ve talked about stress and self-care more in the last year than ever before. But are we putting any of the advice into practice? Have we changed our habits for good? Most of us know we should be taking regular breaks in the fresh air, reducing our screen time, eating well and getting a good night’s sleep. We know what we should be doing but we don’t always do it.
As our society moves towards 24/7 productivity, the pandemic has cemented overwork into our psyches as the new normal. With this mindset, it isn’t surprising that we don’t know how to take a break. Knowing what is good for us isn’t enough, we need to create good habits and we need to be specific.
This article features a collection of guidance from wellbeing experts, with a little bit of science to help motivate you to create healthy, lifelong habits and manage your response to stress.
What is stress?
The word ‘stress’ has negative connotations to most of us but, actually, stress is your body’s natural reaction to an event that requires your attention or action. Your body does not differentiate between a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ challenge and reacts in the same way by producing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, to trigger a rapid response or ‘fight or flight’.
Once the event is dealt with, your body generally reverts back to its neutral state of ’rest and digest’ fairly quickly. However, over-stimulation and daily life challenges can leave us permanently in a state of ‘fight or flight’ and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
We cannot create a stress-free bubble but we can create an optimal environment for our body to respond more effectively to stressors. Here are some tips and resources to help you create a healthier and more balanced approach to challenging stress.
How can we manage our reaction to stress if we don’t notice until symptoms manifest? During the pandemic, it became clear to me as a yoga teacher that my most important teaching is ‘connection and embodiment’, guiding my students to become more aware of the physical and emotional cues that indicate when something is a little skewed. Perhaps a raised heartbeat, a change in body temperature, shallow breathing, feeling jittery or light-headed.
You can practice embodiment by checking in with yourself every morning when you wake up. Take a moment to notice the pattern of your breath. Are you breathing in your chest or lower down in your rib cage and belly? What sensations do you feel in your body? And how do you feel emotionally? Take a moment to write down a few thoughts before you start your day. Checking in daily gives you regular feedback so you are more likely to notice feelings of stress and anxiety and take preventative action before symptoms spiral. Often an embodiment practice leads to enhanced self-awareness that impacts positively on every aspect of our lives.
Our response to stress is managed by our nervous system, therefore a healthy nervous system leads to a more efficient and appropriate response to challenging stress. We can support our nervous system by practising slow breathwork. If you often feel overstimulated and overwhelmed, slow conscious breathing will help bring your nervous system back to ‘rest and digest’. Your heart rate will slow and you should feel more focused and grounded. Practising this technique regularly helps our body ‘learn’ how to jump back to this state more efficiently when we face a real-life challenge.
Balance your blood sugar
Research has shown that we experience more negative emotions when we are hungry. Jennifer MacCormack, post-doctoral fellow in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Psychiatry’s Cardiovascular Behavioural Medicine programme, believes that this research highlights the mind-body connection. She says, “Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviours — whether we are hungry versus full, tired versus rested or sick versus healthy”.
How do we avoid becoming ‘hangry’? Nutritional therapist, Lindsey Whistler, advises maintaining your blood sugar balance by including a healthy source of fat and protein in meals and snacks. Lindsey tells us: “Raised cortisol from stress can lead to cravings for sugary snacks so taking a minute to breathe and reach for something healthy could make all the difference. My best advice is prep, prep, prep! If you have the healthy stuff close to hand it makes it much easier to make a feel-better choice in the moment. My go-tos are smoothies, apples with nut butter, oat cakes and hummus, nuts and berries, sourdough with tomato, avocado and a drizzle of olive oil and seeds”.
Increasing satiety and reducing cravings during your day allows your body to focus on managing stressors appropriately and with less drama.
How often have you sent a snippy email in haste that you wish you could take back? Or snapped at someone and later regretted it? Amanda Ashy, mindfulness teacher, tells us about ‘the pause’. “How can we start to respond with more meaning, rather than react without thinking? We start to bring into our lives the power of the pause. The pause helps you respond from a place of calm, rational thinking because it allows you to stop the automatic reaction that comes from being in a difficult situation or when you're feeling wobbly.
“When we pause, even if for just a moment - a second, we come into the present moment, and we come into our body. That's all it takes to send a message from your nervous system to your heart to your brain so that the biochemical reaction of 'fight or flight' doesn’t take over your mind and body, creating a reactive moment that you might regret or feel guilty about later in the day.In that pause we create the space between stimuli and response and that’s our power to choose, not from a place of stress, fear or anger - just love”.
Practising the pause regularly during our day brings us back to a state of calm. You can do it anywhere and anytime. Perhaps assign it to a regular task, like making a cup of tea, and take a moment while doing that task to pause.
My personal view is that taking regular pauses is essential and a life skill we should be teaching our children. Can you imagine a world where people paused before reacting?! Amanda offers an online course for children, ‘Grounded Little Minds’, which I highly recommend and I am learning from it just as much as my children.
Acupressure is a form of Chinese medicine that can help provide relief from anxiety and stress by stimulating specific pressure points on your body. London-based acupuncturist, Hannah Pearn, advises that: “Acupuncture is scientifically proven to be a method of quickly shutting off the stress response. One of the best points is Yintang, or the third eye, between the eyebrows and is a good point to press yourself when feeling overwhelmed". To use this point:
Sit comfortably and close your eyes;
Press the spot between your eyebrows with your index finger or thumb.
Take slow breaths and apply gentle pressure in a circular motion for 2 minutes.
Shake it out!
Yoga and Shake-Out teacher, Rachel Bednarski, recommends literally shaking the stress out of your body. “One of the best things you can do to instantly move stress from your body is to MOVE! When I notice I’m feeling overwhelmed and my mind is taking over, I love a good shake out as my movement practice. You don’t need equipment or to get changed and you only need enough space to stand up straight to be able to do it.
“Physical movement has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, increase serotonin and dopamine to lift your mood, and produce nitric oxide to allow more oxygen to reach your brain. It also helps grow neutrons in your brain in the region of the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory. Improved memory is always a path to lessening stress!
“Shaking your body is great if you’re already feeling overwhelmed because you can’t get it wrong. There are no postures or moves to follow and it feels so liberating to visualise yourself literally shaking the stress off the ends of your fingertips. Simply play your favourite song and shake your body, starting with your legs until it’s finished.”
Shaking out my body has been transformative over the last year. When I first started doing it, I felt really emotional with the release of years of pent-up emotion but now it just feels really uplifting. I love it and highly recommend Rachel’s online Shake Out classes.
So we have: embodiment, breath, balancing your bloody sugar, taking a pause, acupressure and shaking out! Be kind to yourself and create one new habit today to help manage your response to stress for the future.
Sara Smyth is a yoga teacher, massage therapist and founder of Mama Love Yoga London. Find out more here.