From a small annoyance like getting stuck in traffic, to a major crisis like a sudden change in your financial situation, stressful situations are a natural part of life. But too much chronic anxiety can be detrimental to our health – experts say it can weaken the immune system and cause long-term health issues like high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and even heart disease.
While you can’t prevent stress from happening entirely, you can manage the way you respond to high-pressure situations. We asked experts to share a variety of stress-relieving tools you can try.
Visualize a Safe Place
This easy tool is used in a number of psychotherapeutic techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), a type of therapy used to help people overcome the effects of psychological trauma.
Active visualization can help relieve negative symptoms associated with stress, says Dr. Paul McLaren, a general adult psychiatrist and medical director at the Priory Hospital Hayes Grove.
“Essentially you picture yourself in a place where you have previously felt completely content and relaxed,” says McLaren, who adds that this could be a favorite holiday destination, a garden, or another place of comfort. “Actively bring your destination to mind by trying to connect with the different senses you associate with the place. “Start by closing your eyes and imagining what you can see around you, before taking in the imaginary sounds too – it could be softly crashing waves or birds in the trees. Next, bring to mind the smells you’d be able to experience too, and the sensation of your feet on the ground.”
After 10 minutes of visualizing yourself in your safe space, McLaren says you should start to feel calmer and relieved.
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Alternate Nostril Breathing
Just focusing on your breath or changing the way you breathe can make a big difference to your overall stress levels, says Chatty Dobson, yoga teacher, and owner of FLEX Chelsea. “Although you may not realize it, we have one dominant nostril at any one time, and they (are thought to) alternate (roughly) every 90 minutes (depending on the individual).”
She explains: “Left nostril breathing is associated with the feminine character of calm and restoration, whereas the right is masculine, dynamic, and powerful.” Dobson says alternate nostril breathing can be a great way to cleanse the mind.
“Take a comfortable seat, sitting tall, and rest the left hand gently on the left thigh or on the lap. Bring your right hand into a ‘peace’ sign, and then switch the thumb and fingers so that the index and middle finger are in your palm. Your thumb and little finger should be extended. Take a deep inhalation and close the right nostril with the thumb. Exhale through the left nostril to the count of four. Next, close the left nostril with the little finger, release the thumb, and inhale through the right nostril to the count of four. Repeat this for at least 10 rounds, or until you start feeling calmer.”
Loosen and Affirm
As soon as you recognize the symptoms of stress, like shortness of breath and a fast heart rate, psychotherapist Nick Davies recommends taking a moment to physically address any tension.
“Make your body go as loose, limp, and floppy as possible by sitting back in your chair or lying down, and relaxing every muscle from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes.”
He suggests trying to ignore unhelpful thoughts and focus on breathing diaphragmatically (taking deep breaths by contracting the diaphragm), as this can help activate the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ in the brain, responsible for returning the body to rest.
“Then slowly repeat the following affirmations five times each in your head: ‘I am calm and relaxed’, ‘I am safe and well’, ‘I’ve gotten through this before and will again,’” recommends Davies. “The most effective way I’ve found of overcoming stress is not to fight it, but to allow the feelings to pass.”