Here we are in the first month of a brand new year. What lies ahead of us is a clean slate of 12 months in which to seize opportunities, accomplish goals and reach new heights in our professional and personal development.
If your goal is to have a calm, productive and joyous 2021, you may have been looking into ways to manage stress more effectively. In that case, we have excellent news for you: it is possible to find calm in a stressful situation. We may not be able to completely get rid of all the stressors in our lives, but with a few clever tricks, stress can be managed.
In this article, we will be sharing a quick stress relief technique with you, but first, consider that there are four sources of stress: the environment, social stressors, physiological stressors and (the most important one) our thoughts.
1. The environment: noise, air pollution, pollen, traffic, the weather, etc.
2. Social stressors: the things that make demands on your time and attention. For instance, deadlines, urgent meetings, presentations to give, interpersonal conflicts, finances, the barrage of emails and social media notifications.
3. Physiological stressors: lack of sleep, bad diet, illness, lack of exercise, dehydration, changes brought on by menopause or puberty, etc. How we react to the environmental and social stressors can also show up in the body, which in turn could make you feel more stressed. For instance, tense neck muscles, or psoriasis that flares up when you go through extended periods of stress.
4. Thoughts. Stress begins with our appraisal of the situation. If you decide 1) the situation is dangerous or difficult and 2) that you don’t have the resources to cope with it, you will feel stressed.
It’s our interpretation of the first three stressors mentioned above that can either induce feelings of worry, anxiety or overwhelm, or have no effect at all. Take, for instance, the impact of toothache on your stress levels. How stressed would you feel if you developed toothache while you were in the office, working to a tight deadline? Quite stressed, I would imagine, because the situation is difficult (you are under pressure) and the toothache is sapping your resources (you can’t concentrate because of the pain). Now consider the impact of toothache on your stress levels while you’re watching a movie on Netflix. It might bother you, but it may not lead to feelings of stress.
If we can change our interpretation, we can better manage our stress response. The following stress relief technique is going to help you use your body and thoughts to do just that. It’s simple and effective and works almost instantly. You can remember it as the ABC technique. From start to finish it can take as little as 5 minutes.
Notice that you are caught up in a whirlwind of stressful thoughts or emotions. As soon as you notice that you are experiencing a symptom of stress (e.g. worry, anxiety, irritability, frustration or overwhelm) you have already started the process of finding relief. That’s because noticing it tells you there is a part of you that is separated from the feeling – the part that is observing. Being aware of your stressful thoughts and emotions shows you that those feelings are only a part of, and also apart from, you.
Now that you have created the space in which you became aware of the stressful thoughts and emotions, you can consciously use your body to help you manage them.
Breath and body
There are two things to do in the second step of the ABC technique, and both are physiological.
Part one is to start focusing on your breath. Take a deep breath in, then exhale fully. The key here is “fully”. Make sure your lungs are completely empty before you inhale again, because it’s the exhalation that will calm you down. In fact, if your inhale is longer than your exhale, you are going to feel more anxious. Repeat this cycle three times, making sure that you expel all the air from your lungs on the exhalation.
An even better breathing technique that will push back on the body’s stress response is something called the physiological sigh. Research at Stanford University is still ongoing, but scientists there have determined that inhaling twice through the nose (in layman’s terms, a “double sigh”) followed by one long exhalation through the mouth is the fastest way to bring the mind and body into a more relaxed state. Repeat this cycle three times.
Part two is to change how you hold your body (do this while you are doing the breathing exercise). Smile, sit up straight and drop your shoulders. These three actions send messages to the brain that you are feeling happy (the smile), that you are in control and ready to take action (sitting up straight), and that you are relaxed (dropping your shoulders). Your brain has to release the feel-good hormone serotonin so that it can “match” up with your smile and posture, which in turn lowers the stress chemicals.
Choose your response
The final part of the ABC stress relief technique is to use your thoughts to reinterpret the situation so that it no longer causes you stress. You can either change the question you ask yourself, or change what you focus on.
1. Change the question
Stressful emotions have a lot to do with feeling powerless, which stems from the conflict between what we want to happen and what is happening. An example would be your daughter being ill and you wanting her to get better, but the medication hasn’t worked yet. The conflict between what you want – her to be well – and what is happening – she is unwell – coupled with the fact that you can’t make the medicine work any faster, is causing you stress. When you can’t change the situation, rethinking the situation so that you feel empowered will relieve the tension. Disempowering questions we ask ourselves usually start with “Who”, “Why” or “When”. However, if you choose to immediately change the question so that it includes the word “I” and “How” or “What”, you reword the question in an empowering way.
“Why won’t the recruitment agent reply to my email?” becomes “What can I do to relax while I wait for him to reply?”. “When will I be allowed to go back to the office?” becomes “How can I make working from home more bearable?”.
All it takes is a slight shift in the way you think to go from disempowered and being at the mercy of circumstance to empowered and taking action.
The other option you have is to:
2. Change your focus to appreciation
Perform three more cycles of inhales and exhales and recall a happy memory when you felt blessed and grateful. Make the memory as vivid as possible so that you feel the same happy emotions again. Sit with that memory for a while and really feel those emotions of gratitude and joy. It could be the memory of your wedding day, your son’s first steps or the uplifting Zoom chat you had with your best friend over the weekend. Notice how much calmer you feel.
And that’s it. The ABC technique is simple but effective and can be adapted to any situation. Most importantly, it genuinely works. It’s as easy as ABC: become Aware of the stressful emotions, use your Breath and Body to release the physical tension, and then Choose your response and focus.
We are at the start of a brand new year, we made it through the challenges of 2020, and you now know the ABC of stress relief – things can only get better!
Natasja is a Fellowship Member of ILSPA, currently working as a Legal PA at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in London. Natasja has more than 20 years’ experience as a Legal Secretary and PA, and has worked in both the UK and South Africa. She also practices as a Resilience & Wellness Coach through her company, Natasja King Coaching.