Gentle Suggestions to Help You Cope With Stress
As I sit down to write this article, I am wondering which words to use, to sum up the current climate. ‘Fear’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘uncertainty’ quickly bubble to the surface. I then delve a bit deeper to consider what their opposites might be. What sits on the other side of these difficult emotions / states? How about gratitude, calm and stability?
Global stress levels are at an all-time high and most people could do with some real help in coping with this. Perhaps when fear, anxiety and uncertainty come knocking, it’s gratitude, calm and stability that need to answer the door? Could it be that actively embracing activities that bring feelings of gratitude, calm and stability into each day (no matter how small and temporary these increments are) can help us to cope better and develop a greater resilience to stress over time?
Let’s take a closer look.
Gratitude is a particularly useful antidote to fear and worry. In his most beautiful book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, Charlie Mackesy writes,
"when the big things feel out of control, focus on what you love right under your nose”.
And in fact, science suggests that making a habit of practising gratitude is much more than just a nice idea. Many studies have now shown that people who count their blessings tend to be happier and a 2015 randomised controlled trial involving 293 adults and published in Psychotherapy Research found psychotherapy sessions alongside gratitude writing to be significantly more effective for improving mental health than either psychotherapy sessions alone or alongside expressive writing.1
Take a moment at some point in each day, to mentally log something you are grateful for or take this a step further and write these thoughts down in a gratitude journal, this could be daily, weekly or whenever. It may seem like such a small thing to do, but regularly shifting your focus from something you are frightened of, to something you are grateful for, even if only for a moment, really can help.
If you suddenly found yourself out in the middle of a storm, you’d look for somewhere to shelter. And similarly, in the current climate of heightened anxieties and worries, building pockets of calm into your day can provide psychological shelter, even if just for a brief moment. You’ll probably find that when you emerge again, the sky has brightened a little.
A pocket of calm may be something as simple as taking a moment to focus on your breath; on your first in-breath count 1, as you exhale count 2, another in-breath count 3, and so on until you reach a count of 10. In fact, simple breathing exercise are often the quickest way to shift your nervous system from sympathetic (emergency fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode. And the more you do this, the more it will become your default. In one of my favourite interview articles with world-leading functional gastroenterologist Dr Steven Sandberg-Lewis, you will see the value of gratitude and pockets of calm reflected in the way he approaches each meal, “I have a brief mindfulness practice of diaphragmatic breathing while thinking of 2 things for which I am grateful before I eat.” Read the full interview here.
A pocket of calm can be many different things. It could be a calming herbal tea, a short walk, a bit of gardening, a creative activity, mindfulness practice, magnesium bath, yoga, pilates or indeed any form of regular exercise. Regular exercise has so many benefits, including calming and mood-enhancing effects. According to Harvard Health, “exercise has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.”2 Take a moment today to consider how you could integrate some pockets of calm into your week.
Finding stability in a world that is currently filled with so much uncertainty might seem a strange suggestion, but it is possible and can be a helpful coping mechanism for us all. We may only have limited control over what’s happening in the outside world but we do have some control over our personal environments and relationships and this is where we can focus on strengthening stability.
Many people have been busy with home improvement projects during lockdown, and there’s more value in this than most realise. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin focuses the first month of the year to clearing clutter and organising her home. She writes, “outer order contributes to inner calm”. For many of us however, the task of clearing and organising the home environment can seem overwhelming. In reality, very few people have the time to devote several weeks to a complete overhaul, but everyone can find 10 minutes to clear a shelf. Gretchen continues, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lower the bar. Actually spending ten minutes clearing off one shelf is better than fantasising about spending a weekend cleaning out the basement.”
Now is also the time to invest in relationships; our relationships are often the strong anchors that keep our boats stable in stormy seas. This is important at all ages, and particularly for children. School and education settings may be more challenging at the moment, but when children arrive home to constants such as a comforting meal and a hug, this reminds them that even though the world around may be changeable, they are safe and loved.
Take some time each day to organise and de-clutter your home environment in whatever small way you can. And consider how you might invest in your relationships; a phone call to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, sitting down with your family for a home cooked meal, taking 10 minutes out of a busy day to have a cuppa and a chat with a work colleague (even if virtually) or checking in on an elderly neighbour. At times like these, pulling together and supporting each other is the most important thing of all.
“Can a storm change you?” “Yes” said the horse, “often into the shape of one who holds others in a storm.”
1. Wong YJ, Owen J. et al. Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomised controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research. 28:2, 192-202, 3 May 2016.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Charlie Mackesy
The Happiness Project. Gretchen Rubin
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