My heart is pounding; the air is squeezed out of the room. A sudden flare becomes a slow blaze in every nerve ending. I want to collapse into a fetal position and sprint at the same time.
When our central nervous system becomes engaged, we are simply animals reacting to a predator. These days, we are more likely to have a fight or flight response to a car pulling out in front of us in traffic than being chased by a bear. However, our bodies respond the same way. A cocktail of stress hormones floods us and we can do anything in those moments. Adrenaline makes us feel like we are superbeings who can leap obstacles. Norepinephrine releases more blood sugar, increases our heart rate and sharpens our attention. Cortisol suppresses our immune system so we are not coughing while we decide whether to brawl or flee.
The brilliant design of this system presumed that this hormonal cascade would end when the threat passed. In our modern lives, sometimes the perils don’t end or at least the stressors don’t elapse quickly.
Prolonged stress is a silent killer. Sometimes we stretch our bodies even further in efforts to relieve the stress. We add caffeine, nicotine, sugar or alcohol to the brew of stress hormones percolating inside us, creating a negative feedback loop. We tell ourselves that we will make space for relaxation soon, when the stress is over. Our bodies don’t think this is good enough.
Our 21st century challenge is to calm ourselves down, even when the external stressors don’t end. Serenity can become a priority, even in the midst of intensity. Here are 10 suggestions for immediate stress relief but there are infinite ways to create your own, including yoga, tai ch’i, cooking, cardiovascular exercise, creative arts, meditation and many more. We must become explorers of tranquility and give precedence to our quiet, still spaces. May relaxation be with you!
- Change your breath. Paramedics know that an exhale longer than the inhale slows your heart rate. Try a count of 4-2-6-2. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 2, exhale for 6 counts, hold for 2. This has to be done for at least 5 minutes.
- Walk briskly for 10 minutes.
- Change your self-talk to a message that identifies belief in your ability to survive the stressor. My favorite is “This is not the worst thing that has ever happened. You can get through this.”
- Shake or tremble for 3-10 minutes to reset the nervous system.
- Drink a 12oz glass of water.
- Soak in a hot bath or hot tub for 30 minutes.
- Listen to music. This shifts neurochemistry fast.
- Laugh. That is why we have pictures of cute animals and funny YouTube videos.
- Tighten the muscle groups of your body, from your feet working up to the face to release tension.
- Talk to an empathetic friend or therapist. Our brain settles down when we have the experience of being heard.