We are two years into a global pandemic and its resulting chaos, and humans are feeling the effects. We could all use a refresher on stress management techniques. Stress management is something we all know we need, but the unfortunate reality is that in the moments that you need stress management techniques the most, you often can feel the most incapable of accessing them. That’s why it’s so important to develop strategies and tools when you’re not in an acute state of stress.
What Is Stress?
Stress is often framed as entirely negative, but the fact is that stress is an adaptive response designed to help you survive. Your body is designed with several different stress responses: fight, flight, or freeze. These responses activate different parts of your nervous system and in a survival setting, they’re designed to ensure you do one thing: survive.
The problem comes when you’re constantly exposed to things that your body perceives as a threat. For example, let’s say that you’re out hiking, and you see a rattlesnake. The chances are you’ll find yourself many feet away without even knowing how you got there. You might think later, “I didn’t know I could run that fast!” Your body has provided you with a flood of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that allow your body to move more quickly than usual.
This response is super helpful when trying to get away from a venomous snake, but what if it’s a different sort of threat? What happens when the threat is something like traffic, work deadlines, or a stressful boss?
Your body might still be producing the same stress hormones but without a clear beginning and end to the stressful event, you might start to feel the effects of ongoing stress. This is when a stress response becomes maladaptive and starts to produce negative symptoms
In a society that provides your nervous system with a constant stream of input, you’re likely existing in a state of fight, flight or freeze without even realizing it. Without getting too technical, the states of flight, flight, or freeze happen when one side or the other of your nervous system dominates.Bringing the two sides of the nervous system back in balance is one of the most helpful things you can do to alleviate stress. Starting with the body’s stress response enables you to then take other steps to manage stress.
“Body Up” Stress Management Techniques
It’s tempting to want to think your way out of stress, but when the stress is occurring in your body, it’s paramount to address that first. One of the most fundamental stress management techniques is learning to breathe. Box breathing is a simple strategy that involves an inhale of four counts, holding the breath in for four counts, an exhale for four counts, pausing for four counts, and repeating.
It is easy to remember and practice throughout the day, even when you’re not feeling particularly stressed. Some people try to do a couple of rounds of this at every stoplight for example. Think of a cue that occurs regularly in your life and try to attach mindful breathing to that event. You might be surprised to notice how often you are holding your breath without realizing it.
Grounding is another simple strategy that helps your body perceive safety and relax the nervous system. You can sit gently in your chair and start to notice the feeling of your feet on the floor, then notice the sensation of the chair that you’re sitting on. You could lie down on a firm surface such as the floor and feel the edges of your body fully in contact with the floor.
The goal here is to reinforce feedback to your nervous system, defining that you are existing in your current state and are safe right now. Bringing yourself back to a gentle breath and simply noticing concrete details around you seems almost too simple to help, but don’t underestimate their efficacy. A strategy that is easy to remember is to count down from five using your five senses:
LOOK – look for five things you can see and name them aloud
FEEL – notice four sensations and name them aloud
LISTEN – listen for three things you can hear and name them aloud
SMELL – name two things you can smell aloud
TASTE – name one thing you can taste aloud
These exercises help to bring your body back to homeostasis and allow you to discharge some of the stress and think more clearly.
Honest Prayer for Stress Management
As Christians, one of the best stress management techniques we have available is the practice of prayer. For some, the idea that Christians feel stress might feel like a failure of faith. But, if one looks at the example of how individuals in the Bible deal with stress, we see that they are allowed, and encouraged to voice both their complaints and stress alongside their faith and trust.
The Psalms provide us with a template of how to pray through our stress. The Psalms give us a reference library for the full range of human emotion and experience, assuring us that God can handle it all.
In Psalm 27, David expresses his emotional state to God, saying:
He is feeling isolated, helpless, and dealing with a stressful situation. Scholars don’t know exactly which period of his life inspired this writing, but given that he had to flee for his life on multiple occasions it is safe to say that stress was not a foreign concept to David. He continues:
Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation! – Psalm 27:9
When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in. – Psalm 27:2, 10
His feelings of abandonment and despair are honestly expressed, but he is also turning toward the hope and promise God offers: “The Lord will take [him] in.” The act of remembering God’s past help and looking forward to how God will work leads him to end the Psalm with the hopeful expression:
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! – Psalm 27:13
Prayer enables us to process the feelings that our stress brings. We are safe to bring any feeling, emotion, problem, or burden to God in prayer, knowing that we cannot hurt or offend Him. Where others may not be able to manage your stressors or might respond poorly, we are assured as Christians that we have the ultimate containment for our stressors in our conversation with God.
While prayer is incredibly helpful, we are embodied humans, and the physical presence of another human can be profoundly helpful when we are floundering to find good stress management techniques. This person might be a pastor, a trusted friend, a spouse, or a counselor. Counselors have training and tools that can help an individual to assess their life and make a plan to reduce stress.
Acute stress happens to everyone, but if you find that you are exiting in a state of continual high stress there are steps you can take beyond learning stress management techniques. Often there are underlying messages, wounds, or traumas that are the driving force behind the behaviors and habits that cause stress. Reach us today to see if we can help you to start unpacking your stress.
“Stressed”, Courtesy of Elisa Ventur, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Girl in Hammock”, Courtesy of Zach Betten, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Woman in a Field”, Courtesy of Jasmin Ne, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lake”, Courtesy of Adrien Olichon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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