I know a lot of you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed at the moment with all the changes we’ve had to cope with during this Covid-19 pandemic. So I thought I would provide you with some simple coping strategies to use when difficult emotions show up and your emotional arousal is high. Managing our emotional arousal is an important strategy for improving our wellbeing and to help us thrive in difficult times instead of just surviving.
But first, here’s a quick lesson on stress
When we experience excessive or prolonged stress our brain goes into survival mode setting off our fight or flight response. When we are in fight or flight, our heart and breathing rate increase, pumping blood and oxygen to our muscles so we can spring into action. This is why we often feel agitated, tense or jittery when we are stressed. At the same time, the thinking part of our brain narrows it’s focus and shuts down our rational thinking and problem-solving. Now, this is great when we need to deal with physical threat or danger, but our brain also responds in this way when we experience psychological dangers or threats. The opposite to our fight or flight response is our rest and digest response which helps us feel relaxed and calm.
As there are many physical reactions occurring when we feel overwhelmed and stressed, we can use physical skills to help us to feel calmer. Okay, now some of these skills might seem a bit strange but they all work to activate our relaxation response helping us to feel calm and relaxed. The best thing about these skills is that they work fast, from seconds to minutes. They also don’t take a lot of thinking, which you will remember from the science lesson above is offline when overwhelmed and stressed.
An easy way to remember these skills is TIPP which stands for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Temperature – lower the temperature of you face by holding your breath and putting it in a bowl of cold water or 30-60 seconds or until you start to feel uncomfortable. You can also splash cold water on your face, then bend over and hold your breath. Another option is to hold an icepack wrapped in cloth or a cold compress over your eyes or cheeks for 30-60 seconds. Don’t forget to bend over and hold your breath. This works to reduce your arousal because cold water slows down the heart rate to below the resting rate. A word of warning, very cold water decreases your heart rate quickly, so be careful to make sure it’s not too cold, 10 degrees celsius is about the right temperature. If you have a heart condition or have been physically unwell, please check with your doctor first if this is okay for you to do.
Intense exercise – engaging in intense exercise helps to calm your body down when it is over-aroused by helping you get rid of stored up physical energy, increasing your heart rate and making you feel more positive. You only need to do this in short bursts, so try running on the spot, walking fast, jumping up and down, or pumping your arms back and forth. You could also go for a run or fast walk for 20 minutes. If you have any health conditions or injuries make sure you check with your doctor or physio first to ensure this is safe for you to do.
Paced breathing – slow down the pace of your breathing by breathing deeply into your belly and exhaling for longer than you inhale. You should be aiming for 5-6 breaths per minute. A rate of 4 breaths in and 6 breaths out is best as this closely resembles your breathing rate when you are in a relaxed state. So get counting, In – 2 – 3 – 4… Out -2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6. Adding a word such as relax on you exhale is a mental reminder to feel calm. There are some breathing apps which can make this easier. Check out Breathe by Reach Out.
Progressive muscle relaxation – release tension in your body by tensing then relaxing your major muscle groups. Focus on one muscle group at a time, working around your body holding for 5-10 seconds then releasing for 5-10 seconds. You can try to tense all the muscles from your feet to your face or if you are short on time just try your legs, buttocks, stomach and chest. Don’t tense to the point of pain, it just needs to be a gentle tensing so you can feel the sensation. You can also say relax to yourself as you release your muscles. This activity helps you to increase awareness of both tension and relaxation in your body. You can also pair this with paced breathing.
It’s best to practice these skills when your emotional arousal is not excessively high so that your brain can learn some new patterns. This will make it easier to remember what to do when you are emotionally aroused and not thinking well.
Try each of them and see what works best for you. To help you decide on what works best, rate your arousal level before and after trying each activity.
I hope you find these helpful. Breathing is my favourite. If you would like some extra support in managing your stress or strong emotions, individual sessions are available in person or via video call to help you find mind-body strategies to increase your coping.