Tuesday 20 March 2018

Breathe, and stop... to tackle stress

Everyone should have a toolbox of coping skills to help alleviate stress and anxiety

Meditation is a great ally when times are tough
Meditation is a great ally when times are tough
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I'm always surprised to discover how few people have a toolbox of coping skills for the times when they encounter stressful situations.

When a person is suffering from a cold, they'll be offered much in the way of folk wisdom and armchair medical advice. They'll be advised to take echinacea, megadose vitamin C or to "feed a cold and starve a fever". Everyone has the prescription.

Yet when somebody is suffering from anxiety - otherwise known as the 'common cold of mental illness' - people aren't as likely to talk about the problem, much less the solution.

Everyone will experience a tight chest and clammy palms at one point or another. The only difference is that some deal with it better than others.

The trouble is that many people ignore the first few 'sneezes' - shallow breathing, quick-fire thoughts, clenched jaw - and avoid dealing with the symptoms until they progress to insomnia or panic attacks. It's generally at this point that they'll present to a GP and in some cases they'll be treated with the second line of defence: medication.

Granted, doctors will generally discover there are underlying circumstances involved, but they'll also discover that the patient isn't equipped with the first line of defence: coping skills.

Everyone should have a toolbox of coping skills at their disposal for the times when life gets challenging, as it inevitably does. It's about understanding the stress response and acknowledging that it can overburden the mind and body.

Anxiety makes the mind race. Situations are catastrophised and negatives are magnified. The body and mind go into battle and 'self-talk' becomes overly critical and dramatic. Those that cope better in these situations tend to use kinder self-talk. Why would you speak to yourself differently to the way in which you would speak to a friend in the same situation?

Instead of anticipating what's going to happen next - 'I'm going to have a panic attack'/'I'm never going to fall asleep' - focus on what made you feel this way in the first place - 'I drank too much coffee and this is to be expected'/'I didn't get enough sleep so I'll let my mind return to this subject once I'm well rested'.

Self-talk should be self-soothing, but also practical and rational. This is the essence of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is really just common sense therapy.

Breathing techniques are the backbone of coping mechanisms. Anxiety induces shallow breathing, while steady, deeper breathing lowers blood pressure and promotes a feeling of calm. This technique can be as simple as breathing in for four to five counts and then breathing out for four to five counts. To stay present during this exercise, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends guiding the breath by saying "Breathing in, I am aware of my body" on the inhale and "Breathing out, I am aware of my body" on the exhale.

Belly breathing leads to even deeper relaxation. This is when you breathe into the lower belly, making the diaphragm expand. You can eventually progress to exercises that involve holding the breath and sending it to the areas of the body where tension is held.

Breathing is the easiest way to ground yourself, but there are many more simple exercises that will bring you back into your body. Try pressing your feet into the ground to anchor yourself. It also helps to imagine roots expanding from the soles of your feet and reaching down into the earth.

Meditation is another great ally for times when the going gets tough. Countless people have told me that they couldn't possibly clear their mind of all thoughts. These same people rarely realise how many easy beginners' meditation resources are at their disposal.

YouTube is chock-full with guided meditations, some specifically geared towards alleviating anxiety. Listening to one of these for 10 minutes just before you drift off will lead to deeper, more restorative sleep.

Resources like this become more accessible when we talk about stress and anxiety instead of bottling it up or self-medicating with alcohol and anti-anxiety medication.

I've got into the habit of asking people how they cope with stressful situations and it's helped me create my own anti-anxiety programme. A UN advisor told me that she finds an empty meeting room and performs a couple of yoga postures before a daunting presentation. A woman that is in the 24/7 phase of starting her own business told me that she takes magnesium to steady her nervous system. A masseuse told me that she imagines her 'safe place', which is essentially visualising being in the space where you feel at your most comfortable, whether it's your bed on a Saturday morning or in the arms of your lover.

I know a lot of people suffering from anxiety and the ones who are thriving rather than surviving are those that have created a calming lifestyle. They dedicate time to relaxation and restoration, whether it's a monthly massage or a weekly walk in the great outdoors. They know that alcohol and caffeine are compounding the issue - if not creating it - just as they know the teas that soothe and the essential oils that relax.

Crucially, they know that there is another staircase they can climb when their mind spirals out of control, and it will help them rise above and beyond just about any situation.

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