Cultivating Calm in Times of Stress

You know all of those messages you see that tell you, you just need to “change your thoughts,” and ultimately, this will change your life? Does this ever leave you feeling frustrated, stuck or hopeless, like: “They make it sound so easy, why can’t I just change my thoughts and everything would be fine?” “Something must be wrong with me.” Well, I’m here to let you know that there is NOTHING wrong with you…You see, it’s not always about changing your thoughts…Yes, it is necessary to explore, reflect on, and sometimes shift our thinking patterns but there are factors that influence our ability to do this well. Número Uno:👆🏼 If you are under significant stress, and your nervous system is activated, accessing rational thought is not going to happen easily, if at all. Your body is in fight-or-flight and it is conserving all of its energy and resources to fight or flee from the perceived threat that you are dealing with. Your brain is also being saturated with stress hormones. Número dos:✌🏼 If you have experienced trauma, a big part of that trauma is trapped in the body and cannot be worked through, solely by talking about it or changing your thoughts. The physical sensations that get triggered in the body bring up old thought patterns associated with the traumatic event(s), and often lead to finding ANY way to cope with those sensations (healthy or unhealthy). Simply telling yourself to “stay positive” or “be grateful” in those moments is unhelpful at best and invalidating and triggering at worst. SO, learning to regulate and calm the nervous system is paramount if you want to be able to access higher and more flexible thought patterns or apply other psychotherapeutic techniques, like CBT etc. Not sure how or where to start? Here are 5 practices that you can try, which have been incredibly helpful for me on my own personal journey of getting a grip on my, at times, wonky nervous system:

  1. Deep breathing: Whether pausing to take a handful of diaphragmatic (‘belly’) breaths or pacing your breath (Inhaling for 4, exhaling for 6); slowing down and lengthening the breath (especially the exhales) is incredibly useful for activating the parasympathetic nervous system–our relaxation response/ opposite of fight-or-flight response). Try one of these suggested FREE apps to guide you through the regulated breathing: Pranayama or CALM.
  2. Engage the 5 senses to ground you in the here and now: Focus on 3 things you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, etc. Any time your mind starts to wander, bring your awareness back to one of the senses.
  3. Engage in light, mindful movement, paired with the breath: Sun breaths are a great example of a mindful movement that is paired with the breath. Simply, inhale to guide the arms up by the ears, bring the palms to touch, and exhale to guide the hands back down through the centre.
  4. Bring your awareness to your physical body by engaging in either a guided or self-directed body scan. Direct your awareness from the tips of your toes, all the way up to the crown of your head. Tune into and observe any sensations that are present, such as: tension, numbness, temperature, tingling, etc. Try to avoid judging or categorizing these sensations as positive/negative, pleasant/unpleasant, good/bad, etc.
  5. Engage the body in a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, which can be self-directed or guided. 

Happy Paraysympathetic activation, folks! Next time you see an article about changing your mindset, remember that a calm mind and body are needed first. And, now, you hopefully have some helpful tools in your toolkit to assist you with this!

Janice Gill

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