Is there anyone out there who can honestly claim to be less anxious than they were two years ago? If so, I envy them. It seems that almost everyone I talk to these days is dealing with new or heightened forms of stress and anxiety, on a day-to-day basis. If you’re one of them, you might benefit from adding some quick stress-busting techniques to your toolbox.
Anxiety often presents as racing thoughts, accompanied by ‘fight or flight’ nervous system responses which can send your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate soaring. During prolonged periods of stress, you may also experience restlessness, fatigue, muscular tension, sleeplessness, or social weariness. In moments of heightened anxiety, there’s a pressing need to down-regulate your nervous system, reconnect with your physical body in the here-and-now, and reestablish a feeling of safety and connection with others.
Teaching yoga and relaxation for more than a decade has taught me that the simplest techniques are often the most valuable. They don’t require special facilities or equipment, and can be effective even if you’ve only got a couple of minutes to spare – we don’t want your stress-relief to take up so much energy and attention that they cause stress, themselves! Try one of these quick strategies next time you’re feeling overwhelmed. You might be surprised by how fast you can reset your mood and get your nervous system to stand down, without having to completely reset your day.
This is a great way to acknowledge and release any tension you are holding in your body, so you can do it as a first step before any of the four other techniques. Take a nice full breath in through your nose, then exhale it through your mouth with a loud “hah!” - or “hoo!” or “foof!” or whatever noise comes out. Feel your shoulders release and your jaw relax as you exhale. Repeat as many times as you want.
One of the fastest ways to persuade your nervous system that you’re safe is to slow down your breathing. It’s easy to do, invisible, and relatively silent - so you can practice this technique on the subway, on a plane, even in a meeting. To begin, take a breath in through your nose for an easy, relaxed count of four. Now let the breath out slowly through your mouth, as though you were blowing a bubble and trying to make it as big as possible. Count during your out breath too, aiming for 6 beats. Continue with the 4:6 breathing rhythm for at least 4 breaths, or longer if it feels useful. You might find your out-breath wants to extend further, to a count of 7 or 8 - just keep it gentle, rhythmic, and without strain. You can keep count of the breaths by touching your thumb to the tip of each finger in turn, adding another element of sensory feedback to help you focus on the exercise, not your anxiety.
This is a lovely way to recenter yourself and get out of your own head. Simply place one hand in the center of your chest, so that your palm rests over your breastbone and upper ribs. Feel the warmth of your hand against your skin, or through your clothing. It might feel nice to take a few big sighing breaths (see tip 1 above), and you can experiment with closing your eyes if you like. Now begin to rub your hand in small circles over your chest, gently or firmly, fast or slow: in whatever way feels most warm, calm and comforting to you, and for as long as you need. Aaaaaaah - isn’t that better?
Any small, domestic task, carried out with total awareness and focus, can become a lovely calming ritual that awakens your senses and soothes your mental chatter. If you have space for a few herb pots in your kitchen or garden, then picking mint sprigs for herbal tea can become a tiny spa-break in the middle of your day. Some other options to try: make the bed with fresh sheets and extreme precision; sharpen all your pencils to perfect points; peel and eat a piece of fruit. If you’ve only got 5 minutes to spare, make your favorite kencko smoothie, put on some chill-out sounds, and sip it slowly. Studies suggest that on a longer timeline, increased fruit and vegetable consumption is inversely associated with stress, so that smoothie might check two de-stressing boxes at once. More on this below.
The power of touch is incredibly profound, and it’s been in short supply recently. If you’re craving a sense of connection with others, the obvious solution is to find a friend or family member to hug, or a pet to stroke. But there are lots of other ways to feed that need for contact, even if you’re home alone right now. Try taking a slow shower or bath, or change into seriously soft clothes - whether that’s an ancient tee and snuggly socks, or a silk and cashmere ensemble. Or if you’ve only got 2 minutes (and some privacy - this one is definitely for the working-from-home crowd!) lie down on the floor and have a really good stretch and a yawn and a roll around - the physical feedback you get from the hard floor can be surprisingly comforting.
For more anxiety-lowering, stress-busting pointers – particularly ones pertaining to nutrition – check out our Instagram on June 30. Our in-house Registered Dietitians will be hosting a topical IGTV episode as part of their ongoing “Research Corner” series, and this one will be a deeper dive into ways nutrition and mood can overlap.