While all of us experience stress, some of us have developed stronger skills at calming ourselves down and in being able to re-regulate our bodies and minds.
The ability to soothe ourselves is vitally important as when we are relaxed, our ‘thinking brains’ (aka., frontal lobes) can do their job and come up with different ways to approach a particularly difficult situation while also preventing us from simply ‘reacting’ to a situation.
When we react (i.e., yell, name call, say what we don’t really mean, physically stroke out, quit our job, etc), we often make matters worse and usually have to face the following two difficult emotions: regret and guilt.
At times, we may also experience embarrassment or shame. Although these four emotions are not inherently ‘bad,’ they are often difficult for many people to handle.
Moving from Reacting to Responding
To help you from ‘reacting’ to a stressful or difficult situation and increase your ability to ‘respond’ to a situation, try one or more of the following strategies:
1. Be Your Own Friend and Speak Kindly to Yourself.
Often, we are our own worst critics, and as a result, we can say some pretty disparaging ad insulting things to ourselves…things we would likely never say to a friend.
For example, instead of saying, “I can’t handle this, I’m such a loser and I will never get good at this. Why did I even try? I’m such a stupid idiot,” you could say what you’d likely say to your friend;
“Everyone makes mistakes, especially when they are trying something new. You wanted to do this because you enjoy this. This is just a bump in the road and the bumps are expected to happen. You can handle this because you have handled other things that were tough. Don’t take your eyes off your goal. Keep trying. I know you can do it.”
2. Distract Yourself.
Find something else that you can focus your attention on for awhile. This will help you to mentally get away from the distressing situation, relax a bit, and build up some brain power so can respond and face the situation with a clear head.
You could try a number of activities, such as watching a comedy movie, visiting a friend, petting your pet, walking in nature, playing with kids, drawing, jogging or exercising (which also helps discharge the stress), playing a musical instrument, doodling, etc.
Different activities work for different folks, so you will need to use ones that work best for you. Its best to have a few in your personal ‘tool box’ so you can select one or more that you think would work best at a particular moment.
This doesn’t have to take a long time, and unlike several years ago when many people thought that meditating meant ‘turning your mind off and going blank,’ meditating actually means bringing your awareness to the current moment. It means paying attention to what you are doing right now (whether its sitting in a meditation pose, walking, washing the dishes, etc), noticing your thoughts and then letting them go.
When you notice yourself thinking about ‘it’ again, then pat yourself on the back for noticing that, and let those thoughts go without judging yourself (i.e. ‘there I go again, thinking about it, I can’t get my mind off of it, what’s wrong with me’ etc.) and simply bring yourself back to the present moment.
It’s virtually impossible to completely turn off your mind so your goal is to just keep refocusing on the present moment when you find yourself getting distracted from the moment again.
4. Remind Yourself You are Not in the Past.
When we get stressed out we can often feel like we are small and little again. Very old and familiar thoughts and emotions can pop up ad wreck havoc on us. When this happens, try to check in with yourself and sense how old you ‘feel’ right now.
Ask yourself, when was the first time you felt a similar way? Then, with kindness, remind yourself you are no longer that age, but that you are now your current age and you know different things and have different skills. You may ‘feel’ the same as you did back then, but you are older and have different choices you can make.
You can continue to talk gently to that part of you that feels young while practicing some of the other strategies discussed here. This can help prevent you from really going into a reaction mode and reacting to a situation in a way that you wouldn’t normally have done so if you hadn’t gotten triggered.
5. Breathe Slowly and Deeply.
When we are stressed or nervous, we often breathe fast and shallow, usually within our chests, and not in our bellies and past our diaphragms. This can increase our sense of stress by activating our stress centre (aka., sympathetic nervous system, which gets everything wired up and prepared to fight, flee, or freeze).
One technique for controlled slow breathing is ‘Square Breathing.’ You can do this by breathing in for a count of say, 5 seconds, holding your breathe for 5 seconds, then letting your breathe out for 5 seconds.
Another strategy is to breathe out more slowly than you breathe in. When stressed, we tend to take in too much air (think about what happens when someone hyperventilates). So, to control your body’s reaction to stress, you can focus on making sure you breathe out more than you breathe in.
Now, the thing with practicing any of the strategies suggested above is that your ability to use them when needed is usually better if you practice using them lots when you don’t need them. This doesn’t mean that they won’t work in times of need if you haven’t been practicing them, but that if you do practice them, your body, nervous system, and brain, will be more resilient and able to unwind when you do use them in times of need.