How to create your own stress reduction toolkit
Everyone experiences periods of increased stress and sometimes the stress can feel overwhelming. It is important to learn how to manage your anxiety, says psychologist Dr Fiona Martin.
Creating a stress reduction toolkit, is a great way to manage your stress levels. Here are some ideas for your toolkit.
The primary role of breathing is to absorb oxygen and to expel carbon dioxide through the movement of the lungs.
This movement is controlled by the diaphragm (a sheet of muscle underneath the lungs) and the muscles between the ribs.
When a person is under stress, their breathing pattern changes. Typically, an anxious person takes small, shallow breaths, using their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of their lungs.
This style of breathing disrupts the balance of gases in the body and prolongs feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worse.
Controlling your breathing can help to improve some of these symptoms. When a person is relaxed, they breathe through their nose in a slow, even and gentle way, using their diaphragm to control their breath. Deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern calms the nervous system that controls the body’s involuntary functions.
To do this, you will need a quiet, relaxed environment where you won’t be disturbed for 10 to 20 minutes.
Sit comfortably and raise your ribcage to expand your chest. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take note of how your upper chest and abdomen move while you breathe.
Concentrate on your breath and try to breathe gently through the nose. Your upper chest and stomach should be still, allowing the diaphragm to work more efficiently with your abdomen rather than your chest.
With each breath, allow any tension in your body to slip away. Once you are breathing slowly and with your abdomen, sit quietly and enjoy the sensation of physical relaxation.
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.
It means you observe your thoughts, feelings, and the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound, while being fully aware of your surroundings.
Mindfulness encourages us to slow down, focus on the present and accept things as they are. When we do this, we are less distracted by the future and the past, which can often induce worry and anxiety.
You can practice mindfulness in nearly everything you do.
Next time you eat a piece of fruit take your time and focus on the feel, smell, taste and sensation of chewing – that’s called mindful eating.
When you next go for a walk, focus on the stretch and movement of your muscles, the sensation of your feet touching and leaving the ground and the way your arms swing – that’s mindful walking.
We all know how important exercise is for keeping us physically healthy. But did you know that exercise can also help keep you mentally healthy?
Research shows that people who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing, and lower rates of mental illness. Regular exercise can also help treat anxiety and depression when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Make exercise part of your regular routine. 30 minutes of moderate exercise, at least five days a week, can make a big difference. It can be one 30 minute session, or several shorter 10–15 minute sessions.
There is a strong link between what we eat and how we feel.
A poor diet can make you feel sluggish and increase symptoms of depression and anxiety. But now we are seeing how a healthy diet, filled with a variety of fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains can actually improve mental health.
Two recent studies investigated whether healthy food could reduce depression symptoms. And the results were clear. People who ate a healthier diet improved their symptoms more than those who focused on social support only.
Alcohol is also a depressant. While it can make you feel good for a while, overall it makes you feel bad. Go easy on alcohol and caffeine. Mild dehydration can also make you feel irritable so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Related: Why you should drink more water
Practise good sleep hygiene
‘Sleep hygiene’ means creating habits that help you have a good night’s sleep.
Common sleeping problems, such as insomnia, are often caused by bad habits reinforced over years. You can dramatically improve your sleep quality by making a few minor adjustments to lifestyle and attitude.
The body’s alternating sleep-wake cycle is controlled by an internal ‘clock’ within the brain. Most bodily processes (such as temperature and brain states) are synchronised to this 24-hour physiological clock.
Getting a good sleep means working with your body clock, not against it.
- Get up at the same time every day. Soon this strict routine will help to ‘set’ your body clock and you’ll find yourself getting sleepy at about the same time every night.
- Don’t ignore tiredness. Go to bed when your body tells you it’s ready.
- Don’t go to bed if you don’t feel tired. You will only reinforce bad habits such as lying awake.
- Get enough early morning sunshine. Exposure to light during early waking hours helps to set your body clock.
Good sleep is more likely if your bedroom feels restful and comfortable. Make sure your mattress is comfortable, your bedroom is the right temperature and your room is dark enough. Keep your bed for sleeping and intimacy and avoid all screens and work in bed.
Other stress reduction techniques include keeping a journal and writing down your thoughts and reflecting; getting creative (e.g. painting); and listening to relaxing music.
When stress no longer feels manageable and symptoms of anxiety interfere with your daily living, it’s time to seek help.
Treatment for anxiety and depression isn’t always the same and if you notice yourself or someone you know experiencing these symptoms you should chat to your GP or go to a psychologist for help.