We are now at the point of many Covid restrictions being eased but, far from feeling this as a “release” and feeling more relaxed, many people are experiencing an increase in their stress and anxiety levels. For some this may be a cumulative effect of many months of stress and now, as the pressure eases, these anxieties can become more prominent. We go from “coping” to “reflecting” modes and can begin to experience more anxiety as a result. For others the prospect of coming out of restrictions at a time when infection rates are increasing causes much worry and concern regarding their health. In any event, both in my General Practice work and with the patients I see for Hypnotherapy, I am finding increasing levels of stress and anxiety. Patients may be presenting with mental health problems directly or experiencing the physical effects of a prolonged stress response (IBS, pain, inflammatory disorders, hormonal imbalance, insomnia, headaches, musculoskeletal complaints, the list goes on!) The good news is that investing just a few minutes a day in some simple practices can really help to reduce physical and emotional stress and thus improve these problems.
Western medicine teaches us that the mind and body are separate entities but in reality they are intimately connected – two sides of the same coin. One of the most important connections between mind and body, and one that we have control over, is our breath. Through consciously controlling our breath we can positively impact myriad processes within the body, particularly related to our neural and hormonal systems. We can go from chronic activation of the “fight, flight or freeze” response to activation of the “resting, digesting and connecting” aspects of our nervous system. In this state inflammation is reduced, muscle tension relaxes, hormones can start to come into balance and the gut can start to function properly. There are many different “breath work” practices, some of which are practiced individually and some are practiced as part of other mind-body practices such as Yoga. So much so that it can be a bit overwhelming to find the right practice for you!
As a great starting point for a simple technique I advise my patients first to notice their breath, non-judgmentally, just to become aware of where and how they are breathing. For many this can be shallow breaths, quite high in the chest, noticing their shoulders tense and raised up. I invite you now, just take a moment to notice, how are you breathing? Now with that awareness you can start to consciously adapt your breathing pattern.
Take a gentle breath in through your nose, perhaps counting as you do so. Feel the air going through your nose and gently opening your lungs, you may notice your abdomen starting to expand as your diaphragm moves down to allow the lungs to inflate. Then comes the important bit, the outward breath. Focus on gently allowing the air to flow outwards, breathing through your nose or your mouth whichever feels comfortable. And as you do so just begin to release any tension in your chest and shoulders. Allowing your shoulders to drop down slightly with each outward breath. Again you can choose to count and if you do so aim to breathe out for two counts longer than you were breathing in for. So if you reached, say, five as you were breathing in, allow the outward breath to continue for a count of seven. If you run out of breath don’t force it, just pause and finish the count before your next breath in.
Just one or two breaths like this can have a really calming effect in the moment. Instantly releasing tension and allowing you to relax and focus. It can be done anywhere, even in the middle of a meeting or stressful conversation! If you want to enjoy more benefits from this approach you can start to make it a regular practice. Setting a reminder on your computer, phone or smartwatch so that every hour or two you take a moment to check in with, and adjust, your breathing can keep you more relaxed through the day. If you are able to dedicate a few minutes to a practice this can be even more helpful. You may set a regular practice in the morning and/or evening for five or ten minutes. This can be helpful to start the day well or aid a good night’s sleep. If you are doing a slightly longer practice your mind may wander, this is to be expected. Just notice that your mind has wandered off and gently bring it back to paying attention to the feeling of your breath going in and out and the count.
One of the aspects of the above technique is the position of the body, by relaxing the muscles and dropping your shoulders down you signal the mind to relax. We come back to the connection between mind and body. Multiple studies have shown that the position of your body and your facial expression affect your mood. This can be used as another really quick and simple way to reduce anxiety and feel more confident. Bending over a phone or computer, head down and body hunched, is a submissive pose and signals a lack of confidence. It is a position associated with low mood and low confidence. The opposite of this is the “power pose” where you stand tall, chest open, shoulders down and back, looking ahead and slightly up. This signals confidence and has been shown to lift your mood.
I invite you to try it now. Spend a moment hunched over, looking down, body tense, perhaps focusing on your phone or a computer. How do you feel?
Now stand up, actually do stand up, and adopt the “power pose” described above (you’re aiming to stand like Wonder Woman here). Take a few breaths. How do you feel now? Do you feel a slight lifting? Does a smile come to your face?
So next time you’re about to walk into an interview, a difficult situation, or simply out of your front door for the first time since Covid restrictions lifted, try a few moments of this pose first and you’ll find you’re entering into that situation feeling more confident and more in control.
Another quick technique that can be really helpful is called ‘journaling’. It can help to release negative emotions or help focus the mind on the positive. If you find you have lots of anxieties or worries running around in your mind, or just that your mind is very busy, taking five minutes when you wake up to write down those worries can help to get them out of your mind. They are no longer hanging over you. They will seem much more manageable. This can help for sleep too: if at night a negative thought or a worry pops into your mind you can know that you will give it attention by writing it down in the morning so there is no need to focus on it at 3am. This five minute “morning mind dump” can help to clear your mind for the rest of the day.
You can also use journaling to focus the mind on the positive by creating a “gratitude journal”. This can be via an app or a simple notebook and pen next to your bed. Take a few moments, perhaps before you go to sleep at night, to write down three good things from the day – people you’re grateful to, things or moments you’re grateful for, things that have gone well that day, etc. We’re not looking for groundbreaking moments here, just the simple everyday pleasures of life. There is evidence that this can help re-focus the mind on the positive and improve mood, even in grumpy octogenarians!
We all know Mindfulness can be helpful to reduce stress but you may have been concerned that it was too difficult or time consuming. In fact you can start to apply Mindfulness approaches in just a few moments each day too. Taking a moment just to become really aware of the present moment, using all your senses and really immersing yourself in the here-and-now can help to reduce stress. Perhaps you stop and literally smell the roses on a summer evening, or close your eyes and really enjoy that delicious mouthful of your favourite food, or take a moment to listen to the birds and bees in the garden – these are all mini moments of mindfulness and will have a positive impact. Aiming to focus on the here-and-now in this way a few minutes once or twice a day can be a really helpful habit. Or of course incorporating a regular meditation practice (e.g. via an app like Headspace or Calm) can have great benefits too.
Hopefully this article has given you a few ideas for simple, quick tricks that can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Whatever technique you choose make it a regular habit by doing it at the same time every day. If you feel you need more support than these “quick fix” ideas you may find Hypnotherapy helpful. It is a simple, relaxing technique where you remain completely in control. I have recorded a simple relaxation session which is available here which you are very welcome to use on a regular basis and share with friends and family. You can find out more about hypnotherapy from this podcast and my section of the website here. If you feel this may be an approach you would like to explore for support with stress/anxiety or any physical complaint then please speak to the reception team who will be able to arrange an appointment.