What is the key to managing stress and keeping it in check? Do the opposite of what your body does when you are stressed. Sounds pretty simple, right? It is tricky to recognize what happens in your body when you are overwhelmed, though. In this post, we’ll focus on stress that builds rapidly and causes immediate overwhelm. Although some of these tips can work for chronic stress as well, dealing with that is a topic for another day. Read on to learn how to master managing your stress.
When stress gets out of hand, it can have big consequences. Constantly being in “fight or flight” mode keeps our nervous system in overdrive. Too much stress can cause both emotional and physical problems, such as irritability, mood swings, sleep troubles, digestive issues, poor concentration, and muscle tightness. Any of those sound familiar? When overwhelmed, we also tend to make more emotional choices, rather than rational ones. Plus, as a parent you’ve got a tiny human (or maybe 2 or 3 or 4 or more) who are always watching you. They will learn how to cope with emotions based on what you model for them. Learning to avoid some of these big consequences will have a positive effect on your children too.
Now, let’s figure out how your body reacts to stress. Start by recording stressful situations that come up. Write down: 1) what the situation was, 2) one emotion word for how you felt, 3) what happened inside your body, 4) what you did to feel better, and 5) how it worked. Here is an example: 1) the school bus is one stop away and none of your three children are ready to go, 2) irritated, 3) heart racing, sweating, yelled at kids to hurry up, 4) nothing really, ran around house quickly to gather kids’ things, 5) didn’t change how I felt. After several recordings, you will know which group of reactions describes your stressful situations. The ways your body reacts are grouped below.
The LOUD reactions are the first group of stress reactions. Do you become angry, irritable, on edge, restless, short of breath, hot, or have a racing/pounding heart when you’re stressed? The example above describes a LOUD reaction. When this happens, relaxation techniques that calm you down are best. Deep breathing or mindfulness are two examples of these techniques. To do deep breathing correctly, you need to breathe from your abdomen versus breathing from your chest. It’ll force more air into and out of your lungs. Make your stomach expand as you inhale and contract your abdominal muscles as you exhale. Need more help with this? Check out our post on belly breathing here. Another strategy, mindfulness, includes two things: staying present and focusing on one thing at a time. An easy way to practice mindfulness is to notice each of your five senses while you complete a simple task, like brushing your teeth. What does it smell, taste, feel, sound, and look like while brushing your teeth? Describe your senses in your mind for two minutes while you brush. Boom, you were just mindful. Want more info on mindfulness or specific exercises to practice? We wrote about fun mindfulness activities to practice alone or with your child here. Again, with the LOUD reactions, pick activities that do the opposite and calm you down.
The QUIET reactions are the second group of bodily reactions to stress. Do you become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out when overwhelmed? Maybe your stress causes stomach aches, headaches, or tight muscles. The best relaxation techniques for QUIET reactions will stimulate and energize you. Exercise is a great example of this. You could go for a brisk walk or jog. Maybe bike riding or rollerblading is more your style. Even a few quick jumping jacks, squats, or situps can do the trick. Pick an activity that you enjoy but also helps increase your energy level. Increasing your energy level with physically stimulating activities is best for the QUIET reactions.
The last group is the STATIC reactions. Do you tend to get stuck, where your mind races, but your body doesn’t move? You need to choose relaxation techniques that are calm and energizing. An example of this is mindful walking. Increase your body’s energy level with brisk walking while you are mindfully aware of what’s around you. Silently describe to yourself what you are experiencing through each of your five senses as you walk. You could play a counting game as you walk, counting steps between cracks in the sidewalk or steps in a block. Doing yoga or pilates exercises while focusing on your breathing is another example. With STATIC reactions, you will combine activities from the LOUD and QUIET categories.
Learning to use stress management skills is just like learning any other new skill. You must put in practice before you see results. Keep in mind, your body may react differently to different stressful situations. So, you should practice using different techniques from all the categories above. You will become a master at managing your stress. Be aware of your body, have different strategies in your stress management toolbox, and practice, practice, practice!