20 May 2012

Handling stress

This is a post that I have been meaning to write for absolutely ages. It's about managing long-term stress in your life.

You might be dealing with problems at home, at work, with finances, or in the midst of major change in your life. When there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or that little light seems so far away and every day grinds at you with pressure and stress it can really wear you down and wear you out.

Obviously the most helpful thing would be to eradicate the source of stress but of course that isn't always possible. Sometimes you cannot go around things and you just have to go through them. So you need ways to cope and keep yourself sane and healthy when you're in the thick of it.

These are some of the things that helped me during the incredibly stressful two year period of emigrating halfway around the world and Grant being away for 4.5 months after we arrived in NZ - I hope they help you too!

In no particular order:

Escaping into a good book can be just the break that you need. You can judge my stress level by the book I'm reading - the closer to a Mills & Boon brain-candy chick-lit type book it is, the more stressed I am and the less capable of following a complicated plot! When you have a lot on your mind and happening in your life it's hard to stop the thoughts spinning around and around; reading takes care of that. It gives your brain something else to think about that isn't taxing or related to your current situation and provides the little break you need.

Have a bath
A good long soak in a hot tub works wonders. By all means take some candles, chocolate and a good book in there with you, hang a "do not disturb" sign on your door and relax for a little while. Sure, your problems will still be waiting outside the bathroom door but you will be better able to deal with them if you're a bit more relaxed.

Controlled breathing
Some days it was all I could do - focus on breathing in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and breathing out for 8 counts. Deep breaths into the very bottoms of my lungs, and slowly out again. It does make a big difference. When you are stressed you tend to take shallow breaths. I had problems with air hunger (a type of hyperventilation where you are desperate to take a deep breath but can't) due to stress and mindful, deep, counted breathing helped.

Natural supplements
I don't know if these actually helped my stress or not but I felt like I was actually doing something constructive anyway. I tried Bach Rescue Remedy and other flower remedies formulated for stress, Kalms (a herbal soothing remedy) and tissue salts. Actually, I do know that the tissue salts, specifically kali phos, helped tremendously. I still take them when I have anxiety.

Get enough sleep
Without a doubt I manage stress a hundred times better if I've had enough sleep. I need a lot of sleep to feel well rested (9.5 hours a night) and making an effort to get to bed early makes all the difference - especially when I would regularly find myself awake at 4am, unable to sleep (classic stress symptom). Lack of sleep affects me badly - it will at the very least cause depression symptoms in me, or at worst actually tip me over into full blown depression, so I have to carefully guard my sleep.

Eat healthily
I will have to ask you to do as I say, not as I do because I tend to be a comfort eater and sugar is my drug. But you honestly will feel and function so much better and be able to bear the stresses of your situation more effectively if you are taking care to eat properly. It will help keep you healthy too at a time when stress is compromising your immune system.

Have a brain dump on paper
Sitting and dumping everything that is worrying you or causing stress onto paper can help tremendously. There is just something about getting it out of your head. Big things and small - just write it all down.

Have an 8 second hug
I read somewhere that for a hug to create a release of endorphins it needs to last for at least 8 seconds. So find someone who will give you an 8 second cuddle and feel the positive effect it will have on you. (Hugging your kids doesn't count unless they are actively hugging you back!)

Get out in nature
Problems and worries seem to be somehow diluted by wide open spaces. Surround yourself with nature, whether in your own back garden, on a beach, up a mountain or under a tree at the park. Get out and feel the sunshine on your skin and the breeze in your hair and I promise you will feel better.

Plan regular things to look forward to
A meal out, a girlie shopping day, a trip to a museum, a movie, a visit with friends or family ... whatever gives you a little buzz, plan it into your calendar so you have something short-term to look forward to and focus on rather than the long-term problems that are causing you to feel stressed.

I'm not talking about committing to and training for a marathon. Just a walk outside, or a Zumba class, or some time swimming a few lengths, or just turn up your music and go wild dancing. You will feel better and most likely sleep better too and your body will be able to release some of the adrenaline that stress causes. When I felt especially pent-up I would race up and down the stairs once or twice, or lean against the kitchen counter for a few quick push-ups and that helped. Stress puts your body into "fight or flight" mode and doing something active and strenuous, even if only for 10 seconds, helps to manage that.

There is no logic to it but talking really, really helps. I promise. Sure, nothing in your life will change and your problems will still be there but through some kind of magic talking it out with someone who will listen and be supportive (without trying to fix anything!) makes a tremendous amount of difference. God bless those friends and family members who were there to listen to me along the way.

Mindfulness and living in the moment 1
I've heard this exercise being called "mindfulness meditation" (ha, I accidentally typed "medication" - same thing!) Whatever you are doing, focus all of your attention and senses on it. Washing the dishes? Focus on the warmth of the water, the shiny bubbles, the steam on your face, the scent of the dishwashing liquid, the sound of the dishes thudding against the sides of the sink of water. Pulling weeds? Train all of your attention on the feel of the sun on your neck and the soil in your hands, the resistance of the weeds as you pull them, the green and brown colours, the earthy smell. Do what you're doing slowly, methodically and with your entire focus. Don't forget to breathe deeply.

Mindfulness and living in the moment 2
One thing I learned over and over is that when going through something you sometimes have to Really Go Through It. I've talked above about escaping into books and activities and exercise but it is equally true that you sometimes need to throw all of your attention at what you're experiencing and give it the space it needs. During our emigration process there were a lot of uncomfortable emotions - grief and loss, fear and trepidation, impatience and frustration. Some feelings were big and intimidating. I know the grieving was scary for me and I would manage my feelings in the ways talked about above. I would try to distract myself because I was scared of being overwhelmed by emotion. But sometimes those feelings would force themselves centre-stage and I learned that I needed to really let myself feel them, let them wash over me, give them my attention ... and they would pass more quickly and I could recover a bit of equilibrium again. I'm not saying dwell on your problems or wallow in negative feelings. Just give them a bit of respect and space when you need to. It's part of the process.

Cry and laugh
If you're letting those feelings in then you'll likely end up having a Big Ugly Cry. That's okay. It's your body's way of handling stress. There's no shame in it at all. Go ahead and sob it all out. But equally important is having a good laugh. Watch a funny movie, spend time with an amusing friend who shares your sense of humour, go and see a comedy show. It's easy to forget to laugh and have fun in the middle of a crisis but laughter really is the best medicine and will make you feel so much better.

Find some music that soothes you, that uplifts you, that makes you feel good. Play it as much as you need to. It really is that simple.

Focus on your blessings
I promise you, no matter what you are going through, you have blessings in your life. Spend some time writing them down and thinking about them. Maybe keep a little notebook and write about anything good that happened at the end of each day. Or keep a running list and write down one thing (or a few things) you are grateful for every day - no repeats. This may sound odd but sometimes I use laundry as prayer prompts. For every item I take off the line and fold I send up a prayer of gratitude. Cleaning cloths? I'm grateful for my home. Noah's shorts? I'm thankful for my children. Daniel's t-shirts? I'm grateful that my family are healthy. Oven mitts? I'm thankful for the food we have. Try it out sometime.

Kinesiologist or other practitioners
My kinesiologist was a saving grace for me. She really was. I'm not saying it's for everyone - I'm saying find your thing. Maybe it's aromatherapy, or massage, or beauty treatments, or acupuncture or even counseling. Find a professional who will focus on you for an hour or so and help you to deal with what you are dealing with. You won't regret it or a single penny that it costs.

Time alone or with other people
If you are an introvert, please prioritise regular time alone - you need it. If you are an extrovert, please prioritise regular time in the company of friends - you need it. If you don't know which you are, think about how you feel after being at a party. Do you feel more energised from having been around people (even if you didn't especially enjoy the party)? You're probably an extrovert and your energy comes from being around others. Do you feel drained of energy (even if you really enjoyed the party)? You're probably an introvert and your energy is topped up by being alone.

Treat yourself in the third person
Why is it sometimes so much easier to care for everyone around us but not ourselves? when I find that happening I talk to myself about myself in the third person. Sure, it sounds crazy, but it's amazing how differently I treat myself. I'll ask, "What does Jen need today? How can I help Jen? How can I make Jen feel loved and appreciated?" It's funny but it makes a big difference and somehow it's easier to find the answers to those questions than if I asked, "What do I need? etc"

I hope some of these things help you. They won't all be appropriate at once. Some days I needed silence and couldn't bear music on in the background. Some days I wouldn't be able to relax and enjoy a bath because I would dwell on what needed doing and I was better off just getting on with things. Some days brain-dumping on paper made me feel worse - seeing my problems and worries right there in black and white stressed me out even more.

Sometimes you won't know what will help or what you need but I hope the list above gives you a few things to try.

And remember ... everything eventually passes! You will not be in a state of crisis forever. And when you can't stand it anymore, kneel. You will get through it, just hang in there.

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