Several months ago, I had the privilege of teaming up with Curtis and Christina Jennings from SFCS Architects and Hilary McMahon from Capital BlueCross to create an online toolbox for decreasing negative stress and increasing wellness in this year of COVID, which you can read here.
I admit, when I was first approached by an architecture firm, I was surprised. (Usually our partners and collaborators come from the mental and physical health fields.) But after hearing them talk about the needs of their clients and their expertise around environmental wellness, I was excited to put together this toolbox with them.
If anything, this collaboration further proved that the overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety, and worry have touched people in all sectors of life this year, and it’s important that we come together to support one another’s wellbeing.
*Cue High School Musical’s “We’re All in This Together”*
But in all seriousness, even in community, sharing and accepting help around decreasing stress and increasing wellness isn’t always easy. As a mental health professional and wellness educator, I’m aware of the mental health tactics and tools frequently suggested to help decrease stress, anxiety, and worry, and they really do work when done regularly. However, in a year such as this with so many changes and hardships and divisiveness, decreasing negative stress and anxiety has just been SO difficult.
As much as we want to focus on what is in our power, control, or influence (a common tactic for decreasing anxiety and worry), sometimes our circumstances make it near impossible. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so frequently reminded of how much I’m NOT in control than I have been this year.
All is not futile of course. I do still believe there are things we can do to help ourselves and others decrease negative stress and increase mental wellness, but doing so this year feels less like playing the long-game of wellness and more like a moment by moment necessity of emotionally regulating so we can move on to the next moment somewhat closer to our baseline.
If you’re finding yourself in this place, here are some quicker stress-reducing strategies that have seemed to work for me and others in seasons (however long that ends up being) of experiencing more frequent and demanding stressors.
- Breathing Squares – Find a square or rectangle near you that you can look at. As you track the outer edge of the shape with your gaze, slowly rhythm out your breath. Inhale as your gaze goes up one side, hold the top of your breath as your gaze tracks along the upper edge, exhale as your gaze tracks down, and come to neutral as you track the bottom edge. Repeat several times.
- Active Tension and Release – Start to slow down your breathing. On the inhale, slowly tense up some of the muscles in your body. On your slow exhale, gently release your muscles and feel them actively melt down away from your body. Repeat several times focusing on different muscle groups. This is especially helpful in areas where you tend to hold stress (i.e. shoulders, neck) so you can get into the practice of releasing tension from that area.
- Grounding Exercise – When you’re starting to feel really overwhelmed it can be helpful to reground yourself back to the present. Name five things you see, four things you can physically feel or touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Soothing Senses – Prepare some items that you find soothing to your senses in a place that is accessible to you before, during, and/or after a stressful event. Feel free to think of items that engage a variety of your senses like a warm cup of a hot beverage or a cool cloth of essential oils. Take time to focus on the sensation rather than the stressor.
- Play or doodle – Grab any travel sized game (i.e. word search books, dice, cards, etc.) that you can keep in your bag, desk, etc. for use when you’re feeling stressed or stuck on a problem. Playing or even doodling changes the way you’re using your brain while also engaging your pre-frontal cortex in problem solving and decision making.
- Hold space for yourself to be still and quiet – If you find yourself stressed because you are constantly busy and filled with distractions and noise, find balance by being still. This can look like meditating, doing a devotional, praying, disengaging to create sensory deprivation, etc. If you need guidance or something to listen to, the Calm app and Headspace app are popular and helpful tools.
- Self-affirmations – If you need a boost of confidence or courage to face something stressful, take some time to say positive things you believe to be true about yourself and your situation. Doing so while sitting or standing in good posture or a power stance can help you physically embody this as well.
- Engage in Movement & Music – If you’re feeling stuck in your head, get blood flowing through the body again by dancing or exercising to music that speaks to you and what you’re feeling in the moment. Not only does it engage a different part of your brain, but it’s a great endorphin booster.
These are not long-term fixes by any means, but while everything is off kilter this year and we shift to develop our new (hopefully better, healthier, more equitable and inclusive) future, incorporating ways to manage the stressful and overwhelming weeks, days, and hours through short-term strategies may be the best we can give ourselves, and these days that’s honestly more than okay, that’s normal and perhaps even means for mental and emotional survival.
Lisa Linger, NCC
Director of Mental Health in Motion