There is scarcely a person on the planet that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic in some form. Whether it be from the loss of a loved one, a job, or a sense of normalcy, the collective grief and stress felt by so many hovers like a stubborn fog refusing to lift. Although the pandemic’s strain can feel like the new default setting each day, there are simple techniques that can momentarily provide a break in the clouds.
When you are feeling weighed down by stress or anxiety, these seconds-long strategies can make all the difference to help you calmly take back control.
Why Do I Feel So Tense? (Besides *Gesturing Broadly* Everything About 2020-2021)
When there is a perceived threat, our brains release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to erupt and flow through the body, which is designed to heighten our physical abilities to help keep us safe (commonly known as the “fight or flight response.”) This brain function is the same that a cavewoman may have experienced while fleeing a sabretooth tiger, or the badassery that allows you to be able to fly across the room like it’s NBD to catch something right before it falls.
It’s important to know that this chemical reaction isn’t just in response to physical threats, but anything that can make you feel threatened or overwhelmed emotionally, such as financial trouble, a Covid diagnosis, or yet another political battle. Emotional triggers can often cause you to feel physical symptoms like a sudden flash of tension, clenched teeth or fists, shortened breath, or even holding your breath without realizing it.
The physiological reaction of our brain responding to external stress is meant to be beneficial for the short term, but becomes problematic when we feel so agitated and don’t know how to alleviate the tension caused by lingering stress hormones long-term. Yelling or losing our cool may be a satisfying outlet temporarily, (we’ve all been there) but often contributes to more negative feelings – perhaps you’ve tarnished a relationship with a loved one, you feel guilty, and the vicious loop continues. Such a delight.
How to Calmly Relieve Feelings of Stress
As wonderful as it would be for all of those external stressors to magically disappear, challenging situations will always be a part of life. Rather than trying to diminish triggers altogether, here are ways we can cope healthily when they do appear.
There are many calming breathing techniques out there, but I usually end up forgetting how long I’m supposed to breathe in and out and end up gasping for air like Princess Buttercup and Wesley emerging from the sand pit in the Fire Swamp. For this tactic, also known as Four-step breathing, all you need to remember is the number four (Inconceivable!) This is an intentional breathing practice commonly used to stay calm in high-stress professions, such as by military members, E.R. staff, or police officers. Here’s how it works:
- Breathe in deeply through the nose for four seconds
- Hold for four seconds
- Exhale for four seconds
- Wait four seconds before repeating
This is impactful because during fight-or-flight, we often resort to short, shallow breathing without even realizing it, retriggering the loop of stress hormones because our brains still think we are in danger. However, while our brain controls our bodies, our bodies can also help regulate our brains. Taking some deep, full breaths helps to signal the brain “Hey it’s cool, we are fine over here,” which will help stop those stress hormones fueling through the body sooner.
Mayo Clinic R.N. Laura Peterson explains why this is so beneficial: “During stressful moments, conscious breathing allows you to shift and release negative energy instead of storing it in your body. This is important, because stored-up energy often manifests as muscle tension and other physical ailments.”
Not only does deep breathing help you feel free from tension in the short-term, it has long-term health benefits including decreased blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. If you don’t have a chance to do this during the day, try box-breathing as you go to bed to help alleviate busy-brain as you try to fall asleep. (While, if you’re like me, being irritated at your husband flexing his sleep skills by nodding off in just shy of 2.7 seconds.)
Wait 90 Seconds
This first thing you can do is simply ride that wave of tension for just over a minute before reacting, knowing you’re your heightened stress is actually only a matter of seconds. (The morning version of myself who stewed for WELL OVER 90 SECONDS about running out of coffee is going to need more information here.)
Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains: “Something happens in the external world and chemicals are flushed through your body which puts it on full alert. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body it takes less than 90 seconds…After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking – that are re-stimulating the circuitry – that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.”
During this 90-second circuit, the area of our brain in charge of executive function, or decision making, is not operating normally as our instincts take over. While it’s so tempting to strongly react at that moment to alleviate and regulate that intense feeling of stress, just having the awareness that your body will be feeling naturally more relaxed soon is a game-changer. Try not to make any big decisions or apply consequences during this minute-and-a-half; rather, wait until the executive functioning in your brain is more capable of making better judgments. So, whatever you do, don’t spontaneously decide to cut your own bangs with kitchen scissors when you’re super triggered. Not today, Satan. NOT. TODAY.
Mentally Label the Situation
Let’s be real – we don’t often have an extra second, let alone 90 of them. When you are in a situation that requires your immediate intervention, you can do a one-second trick to help you respond more calmly: simply taking a second of being aware that you are highly triggered or in a stressful situation. This also gives you a moment’s mindfulness head start – something that can make all the difference in our own perspective and behavior.
I was taught this trick as an elementary teacher and vividly remember a moment when it helped me to stay grounded while teetering on the edge of a flight-or-fight rabbit hole. It happened during a class Halloween party, because nothing says “calming” like two dozen second-graders on a sugar high eager to go trick-or-treating. (I still adore them though.) Toilet paper was all over the floor from the well-meaning class volunteers’ “Wrap the Mummy” game (Pre-Covid before TP had gold status), the kids were really excited, and we only had one minute to get everything cleaned and packed up before the bell rang.
Before reacting (such as raising my voice) I took a breath, had a 30,000-foot-view of the situation, and just thought, “This is chaos, it’s loud, but it’s temporary.” Just acknowledging the situation as stressful in my head was enough to center me back and calmly take control.
When any situation gets tough, try mentally naming the scenario how it is, like “This is A LOT” or “I am trying my best,” or, in more dicey situations, “I am triggered AF right now.” This can help bring you back to the present moment before the cycle of stress goes into full swing.
You’ve Got This
As the word “unprecedented” swirls around us constantly and we ache for the return of some good ol’ precedented times, this pandemic has provided moments of grief, gratefulness, and longing all at once. Whether you have leapt over each hurdle or just stumbled through it (like me running track circa ’99), feel proud of the resilience you have shown so far. While seasons of struggle come and go and we may not always be able to control each challenge, we can control our response to it. As Jon Kabat Zinn puts it, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Lindsay Richardson is a writer and educator who has been published in a variety of major publications. She loves writing honestly and humorously about life experiences and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children (three if you ask the dog.) You can visit her website Hope and Happy Hour or follow her on Instagram: @hope_and_happy_hour.