Overcoming the Amygdala Part 47
There are countless techniques for managing stress, and many of them we have covered so far: meditation, including Active Meditation which puts the imagination to use, and exercise are just a few examples of stress-relieving activities. Ironically, many of them tend to work best when we are not trapped in the heart of a nightmare stressful situation. It’s not always possible to ‘relax’ your way out of physical pain, or other health stress, or a crisis at work, or the loss of a loved one. You can’t just excuse yourself to meditate or take a long walk — in the middle of something, you need something more immediate and accessible.
Evolution has geared us so that our stress-creating response is faster and sharper than our stress-nullifying one. As we were learning last time, there are two broad parts to the body’s autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic part, which triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response through the amygdala, and the parasympathetic part, which helps us calm down and recover from high stress situations but which is slower — it actually has longer neural pathways compared to the sympathetic ones.
But all is not lost. We can learn to engage our very own ‘rescue system’ provided that we a) recognise that we have one and b) spot that it’s time to activate it.
You can stay calm, productive, and focused even in the heart of drama when you know how to quickly relieve stress. Here are some tips:
1. Recognise when you’re stressed
This might seem too obvious — of course you know when you’re stressed! But many of us spend so much time in the Panic or Anxiety Zones that we’ve forgotten what it feels like when our nervous systems are in balance — we don’t remember what ‘homeostasis’ feels like. So learn to observe your muscles: are they tense or sore? Is your stomach tight, cramped, or aching? Are your hands or jaw clenched?
Observe your breathing. Is it shallow? Notice when you breathe fully or when you ‘forget’ to breathe.
Keep a track of your thinking over a fifteen minute period: did your mind wander onto more pleasant things? Or was it stuck, recycling the same or varied worries, over and over?
Just spotting that you are not ‘balanced’ is the first step to recovering that balance.
2. Identify your stress response
Internally, as we know, we all tend to respond the same way to the ‘fight-or-flight’ alarms: our blood pressure rises, our hearts pump faster, and our muscles constrict. Our bodies drain our immune systems.
Externally, though, people respond to stress in different ways. If you can isolate your own personal stress response, you might be able to relieve it faster.
If you tend to become angry, agitated, overly emotional, or hyped up under stress, you’ll respond best to stress relief activities that quieten you down.
If you tend to become depressed or withdrawn under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating.
Do you freeze when under stress? Find yourself totally stuck and unable to take action? You need to reboot your nervous system and reactivate your body’s natural ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. Walking, swimming, running, dancing, climbing, or activities like tai chi, can be particularly helpful because, as you move, you can focus on your body and the sensations you feel in your limbs rather than on what’s going on in your head. Your nervous system can thus become ‘unstuck' and move on.
3. Use your senses
You’ll first need to identify the sensory experiences that work best for you. As you employ different senses, note how your stress level responds. Try to find the specific kind of sound or type of movement that affects you the most. For example, listen to many different artists and types of music until you find the kind of song that instantly lifts and relaxes you. Recently, in my case, I discovered unexpectedly that playing a relaxing jazz soundtrack in the background helped me to relax — who would’ve thought it?
Here are some examples, but allow your imagination to come up with additional things to try. When you find the right sensory technique, you’ll know it because your stress level will fall, even if only slightly.
Find a picture of someone or something that you love and look at it.
Bring bright flowers into your work space.
Go for a walk in nature and look around at the scenery.
In your imagination, picture a relaxing scene.
Smell your favourite flower.
Put on a favourite perfume or cologne.
Light a scented candle or burn some incense.
Try different essential oils.
Cook a favourite food.
Pet a dog or cat.
Wrap yourself in a soft blanket.
Hold a comforting object close.
Get a massage.
Wear comfortable clothing.
Have a cup of your favourite beverage.
Eat some of your favourite fruit.
Enjoy a tasty snack.
Eat your favourite meal (in moderation).
Go for a run.
Go for a walk.
Squeeze a stress ball.
Play a favourite song.
Listen to calm or uplifting music.
Listen to a soundtrack of nature— the sea, a rainstorm, birds singing.
Sit by a fountain.
Hang up some nearby wind chimes.
4. Look for inspiration
Remember what you did as a child to calm down — did it involve a blanket or stuffed toy? Find something similar that you can carry around with you unobtrusively.
Learn from others. Ask people you know and admire how they stay focused under pressure.
Imagine vividly when stress strikes. Recall strong sensations, invent powerful characters or scenarios.
5. Take a break from technology.
Take a rest from your television, your computer, your phone — put them all aside for a set period of time and get back in touch with the real, physical world around you. Remember that TV and various websites and apps are designed to create stress in you, either for entertainment purposes or to get you to buy something. Say No to that kind of thing for a short while.
Tune into relaxing music instead of talk radio during your day. Or try turning the radio off for 15 minutes.
Take a moment to people watch. Pay attention to what you hear and see.
Take a few deep breaths, look out of the window, or sip some tea.
These things might seem too commonplace, too mundane, too ordinary, to be effective against the steamroller of stress that you have been experiencing. But remember the two halves of the autonomic nervous system: one is designed to keep you super-alert, super-sensitive, super-prepared for battle or running away. From its viewpoint, anything less than absolute tension and supreme readiness is going to look dull and ineffective. But in that state, you need a little ‘dull and ineffective’, in the sense that you need to come down from a condition of high alert towards homeostasis. Homeostasis is always going to look weak and inadequate to the amygdala. Keep that in mind as you practice the above — the amygdala’s viewpoint is just a viewpoint, strong though it may seem.
More tips to activate the parasympathetic side next time.