This text is written by Linda Therese Sørensen Westgaard
I work at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at UiO, as an adviser in ForVei. In ForVei, we coach students, PhD candidates and co-workers, and quite often, we talk about stress and how we can reduce and cope with it. Our ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of our relationships and support network, our life experiences, our emotional intelligence, and our genetics. Below I am sharing some tips on how to better manage stress.
I want you to remember in the back of your mind that stress is not always bad, though. Transient stress that you can tolerate helps you stay focused, energetic and alert. Stress within your comfort zone can help you perform under pressure, motivate you to do your best, and even keep you safe when danger looms. It is when stress becomes overwhelming and long lasting it becomes a problem.
Our nervous system and stress
Our autonomic nervous system control involuntary actions like contraction of the heart and secretion of hormones from various glands. It is further subdivided into the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems governing our "rest and digest" and "fight or flight" responses, respectively.
When we feel under pressure, our sympathetic nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, which rouse the body for emergency action. This response is our body's way of protecting us and once the threat is gone, our body returns to a normal relaxed state. However, the body's autonomic nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. This may result in a prolonged stress response that may eventually lead to unhealthy stress. To help us avoid unhealthy stress, we need some tools to reset our alarm system. I often ask participants in my sessions to reflect upon their number one tip in how to manage stress and now I will share with you some of mine.
Tip #1: Deep (stomach) breathing
One of the easiest ways to relieve tension is actually by deep breathing. The body gives us an awesome way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system) when our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system) goes a little crazy, and that is actually through our breath. Have you noticed your breath in stressful situations? When you are activated, you usually breath very shallow and through the chest. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by the opposite, by deep breathing through your stomach – where you take the air through your stomach and breathe out slowly.
The simple act of taking time to focus on your breath for 2 – 3 minutes might relieve tension and make you feel calmer. In addition, you are also training your brain in some sense to refocusing, so when your brain starts ruminating about your thesis or anything else, you can bring your mind into breathing, activate your parasympathetic system and then regulate your emotions.
Try to sit down comfortably, or lie down on your back with a pillow under your head. Relax your shoulders, your neck, your back, your belly, and your legs. You can even close your eyes if you want to. Put one hand on your stomach, just below the ribcage. Slowly breath in through your nose – your stomach should feel like it is rising. Exhale slowly through your mouth – emptying your lungs completely and letting your stomach fall. Repeat several times until you feel calm and relaxed.
Tip #2: Social engagement
Talk to an attentive listener. Talking to an empathic and balanced listener can help you calm down and relieve stress. The other person does not have to «fix» your problems; he or she just has to be a good listener. Social engagement is our most evolved strategy for keeping ourselves feeling calm and safe. Simply sharing your feelings with someone you trust can put the brakes on your defensive responses like "fight or flight" - even if there is nothing they, or you, can do to alternate the stressful situation.
With stress there often follows common symptoms like feeling overwhelmed, having negative thoughts about yourself and the future, and worrying a lot. Worry is a special form of fear and might take many forms, but it usually stems from an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. There is a Swedish proverb, which says, “Worry gives small things a big shadow”, sometimes we can relate to that …
Tip #3: Stop worrying
Easier said than done, but you might have success with trying this approach:
Start by identifying the frightening thought, being as detailed as possible about what scares you or worries you. Then, instead of viewing your thoughts as facts, treat them as hypotheses you are testing out – put on your researcher’s hat. As you examine and challenge your worries and negative thoughts, you are likely to develop a more balanced perspective.
Ask yourself these questions when you have identified the worried thought:
- What is the evidence that the thought is true? What is the evidence that it is not?
- Is there a more realistic way of looking at the situation?
- What is the probability that what I am scared of will actually happen?
- How will the worrying help me and how will it hurt me?
- What would I say to a friend who had this worry?
How to de-stress in less than 10 minutes
It might be tough to find time in a busy schedule for stress managing techniques, but some of these techniques can be practiced while you are doing other things. You can meditate while you are drinking your morning coffee, practice mindfulness while climbing the stairs or exercise deep breathing while you are doing housework.
Remember that there is no single relaxation technique or stress managing strategy that is best for everyone. When choosing a technique, consider your specific needs, preferences and the way you tend to react to stress. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you.
I have put together 40 ways to de-stress in less than ten minutes, get inspired to try something new or just get reminded of something that already works for you:
- Listen to your favorite tunes
- Head outside and get some fresh air
- Read for pleasure
- Walk or bike around the block
- Count to 10
- Write down 10 things you are grateful for
- Watch candlelight
- Tell some jokes
- Doddle or draw
- Call a friend
- Chew a piece of gum
- Focus and notice your present surroundings (grounding)
- Disconnect from tech
- Look at a happy photo
- Squeeze a stress ball
- Watch a funny YouTube video
- Punch a pillow
- Deep, slow breathing
- Read an inspirational quote
- Pet a dog or a cat
- Practice yoga poses
- Do 20 jumping jacks
- Do something nice for someone
- Sit in the sun
- Watch the clouds
- Pick some flowers
- Give yourself a neck massage
- Take a shower
- Kick a soccer ball
- Say "hello" to a stranger
- Practice breathing slowly
- Wear your favorite perfume
- Write a nice e-mail to a friend
- Remember that stress is energy
- Throw a paper airplane
At the end, I would like to emphasize that how we perceive a situation might have great impact on the level of stress and how we cope with it. I do not remember where or when I first read this ancient tale, but I sure remember the feeling of everything falling into place. It reminded me of how quick we usually put labels on situations. I saved the tale in my notebook just in case I would need it later. Now is later, and here it is:
There was an old farmer who lost his horse. The neighbors came over to say, "Oh, that's too bad." And the farmer said, "Good or bad, hard to say." Days later, the horse returns and brings with it seven wild horses. The neighbors come over to say "Oh, that's so good!" And the farmer just shrugs and says, "Good or bad, hard to say." The next day, the farmer's son rides one of the wild horses, is thrown off and breaks his leg. The neighbors come over to say, "Oh, that's terrible luck." And the farmer says, "Good or bad, hard to say." Eventually, officers come knocking on people's doors, looking for men to draft for the army, and they see the farmer's son and his leg and they pass him by. And neighbors come over to say, "Ooh, that's great luck!" The farmer once again says, "Good or bad, hard to say."
So, good or bad? It is hard to say. Labels like this keep on confining us and limit the ability to see the opportunities in the difficulties. It is a lot about the attitude and how we choose to perceive the world. Another important aspect is whether we have a fixed or growth mindset which allows us to look at challenges as obstacles or embrace them as opportunities. But that is another story that you can learn more about here.