Ruth Clare

How your body can help you contain stress and overwhelm

When you start to feel stressed you can use these three easy techniques to help you shift to a calmer, more regulated state.

How do they work?

When you feel stressed or overwhelmed, your body is generally operating in fight-or-flight mode. This mode gets switched on by the autonomic nervous system without your conscious awareness. Once this system gets activated, you are automatically primed for attack, which can lead to you responding to situations defensively, with a shorter fuse and with reduced capacity for higher level and long term thinking.

These techniques remind your nervous system that you are safe, so fight-or-flight mode is not required. They return you to the present moment, which is ultimately the only moment you have control over. And importantly, they are also invisible, so no one will ever know you are doing them.

TAKE A “BEFORE” SHOT

The following techniques can produce some pretty instant impacts. But every person is different. To find out if they are effective for you, take an internal snapshot of the way you are feeling inside your body right now.  How buzzy are your thoughts? How tight are your muscles? How fast is your heart is beating? How quick are your breaths? In terms of overall feelings of stress and anxiety, where would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?

The three techniques

1. Bring your attention back to your body

Taking a moment to detach from the neverendingness of your thoughts to return to the solid physicality and finite container that is your body, is instantly grounding and helps to contain your overwhelm.

How to do it

Take a moment to bring your attention to the back of your thighs and your bottom where they’re touching the seat. You can shift around if it helps, but really bring your focus to the feeling inside your body. Pay attention to the physical sensations that you are experiencing at the intersection where your body meets the chair. What temperature is your chair? Warm? Cool? Does the seat beneath you feel hard or soft? Really notice the sensations of sitting in the chair and recognize how good it feels that you are able to relax and know that you are supported by the seat beneath you.  

Now bring some attention to the feeling of your feet inside your shoes. You can even wiggle your toes a little to draw your attention down there. Really feel the texture of where your foot interacts with your sock. Is it smooth? Is it warm? Notice the physical sensations of your foot in your shoe. Pay attention to the floor beneath you and recognize how comforting it feels to have a solid floor beneath you.

Questions to consider:

How did it feel to bring your focus to your body?

How in tune or out of touch did you feel with your body during this process?

Are you aware of how much time you spend lost in your thoughts without connection to your body each day?

Might staying in your head without grounding yourself in your body be contributing to your stress?

How might you benefit if you let go of your thoughts more often and grounded yourself more regularly in your?

2. Take in the world through your five senses

When your mind starts racing with anxious thoughts, whether they come from your past or the imagined future, bringing your focus to the concrete world around you and reminds you that right here, right now you are safe.

How to do it

Bring your full awareness to the information being perceived through your senses.

What can you see?

What can you smell?

What can you taste?

What can you hear?

What can you touch?

If your mind is especially active you might at first find this difficult to concentrate on the sensory world for longer than a few seconds. Just keep dropping your thoughts as soon as you recognize you have become lost in them again and bring your attention back to your senses. You can do this process for 20 seconds at a time or spend more time here. This process is very effective when repeated regularly throughout the day.

Questions to consider:

How in tune did you feel to your sensory experience?

Which sense was the easiest for you to connect with?

Which sense was the most difficult for you to connect with?

How easy or difficult was it for you to maintain focus on your sensory experience?

What sensory experiences do you find most soothing, and how might you use these to nurture yourself?

3. Box breathing

Box breathing involves bringing some of your awareness to your breath and making deliberate changes to the way you are breathing. This gives feedback to the autonomic nervous system that you are not needing to run away from a predator at the moment so fight-or-flight mode is not needed. Box breathing is used by elite military forces to reduce the often overwhelming physical sensations of potentially life-or-death situations. It is especially helpful in situations when you feel your mouth go dry and your knees start shaking like if you have to do public speaking or find yourself in the middle of a difficult conversation.

How to do it

Take a deep breath in, trying to keep your shoulders still and using your stomach to do the breathing. This might feel tricky at first because you often use the top part of your lungs during fight-or-flight mode. Once you can at least feel a bit of movement in your stomach, change the rhythm of your breathing as follows:

Breathe in for four,

Hold for four,

Out for four,

Hold for four.

That last bit, the holding of the breath for four, is the most important part of the box breath, because it emulates the pattern of breathing you have when your body is in a relaxed state and tells your body you are calm. Repeat this breathing pattern for a few minutes or longer to give your autonomic nervous system long enough to respond to the message of safety this breathing is giving it. Continuing to try to draw the air in through stomach movement rather than panting at the top of your lungs.

Questions to consider:

How easy or hard was it to breath using your stomach?

How easy or hard was it to hold your breath for four at the end of the cycle?

Did you notice a change in your capacity to breathe in this pattern during this process?

What future events can you think of where this breathing might be supportive for you?

TAKE AN AFTER SHOT

It is often surprising to realise how out of touch you are with what is going on inside your body. Compare how you are feeling now to how you were feeling before the exercises. Do you notice any change? What number is your stress level at now? Which one felt the most effective to you? If you found these practices helpful, use them often.

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Ruth Clare is an award-winning author, TEDx and motivational keynote speaker, professional actor, qualified scientist and authenticity, resilience and change expert who learned by necessity, first to survive, then to thrive. Ruth weaves research and hard-won lessons with powerful, relatable stories from her lived experience overcoming adversity, to help others find the courage to own the stories that are holding them back so they can rewrite their lives. With a rare knack for distilling the neuroscience and psychology of human behaviour into simple ideas and practical strategies, Ruth shows people how to embrace uncertainty, stay hopeful when times are tough and harness their potential for growth and change. Ruth’s TEDx talk, The Pain of Hiding Your True Self, has had over half a million views.