Imagine you’re on a nice vacation at the beach and you swim out a bit to enjoy some casual snorkeling. You’re enjoying the scenery when you look out ahead of you and see a shark lurking about 50 yards ahead of you. Regardless of who you are, you’re going to have an immediate stress response and likely try to swim towards the shore. The process that happens in the body and in our brain is interesting. As signals relay through one part of the brain to the next, hormones such as cortisol (aka the stress hormone) begin flowing. This process is important because it actually tells the body to shut down non-essential functions like digestion and blood flow to focus on survival. It basically sends the message, “Yo body, we are in serious trouble here!” Our bodies can then use all our resources towards the flight or fight response to get us out of the stressful situation.
Not all stressful situations will involve a potentially life or death situation like fleeing from a shark in the ocean. However, we live in a fast-paced, achievement-focused world with a lot of pressures and a lot of stress. Understanding how stress works in the brain and body can help us understand why chronic stress or anxiety is so detrimental to both our physical health and our mental health. Chronic stress and anxiety is like leaving the lights on in your house all the time. Our body’s resources can’t always be “on” stuck in flight or fight mode. This is why it’s critical we find ways to reduce stress and anxiety for the sake of our overall health.
When we deal with stress, not only do we allow our body’s hormone levels to return to normal, but we also feel better. Each person is different, so find a tool that works for you. Here are some techniques you can try:
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Technique
Close your eyes or focus on a spot on the floor and begin breathing slowly in and slowly out. As you breathe in and out, find five things you can feel, five things you can hear, five things you can smell, and five things you can taste. Then move to four things for each sense, then three, etc.
4 Square Breathing
Imagine you’re drawing a square in your mind. As you “draw” the first line, breathe in for 4 seconds. For the second line, you hold the breath for 4 seconds. For the third line, breathe out for 4 (or more-breathing out needs to be even slower than breathing in), seconds. For the final line, rest for 4 seconds and then repeat the process.
Quick Coherence Technique
Focus your attention on the area of the heart. Imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart or chest. Make sincere attempts to experience regenerative feelings such as appreciation, care, calm, and ease for someone or something in your life.
Look for the tension and stress in your body. Start from your toes and intentionally tense each muscle, then releasing the tension as you breathe in and out. Continue this process moving through the body, progressively tensing and relaxing each muscle group.
Think of a place where you feel safe, relaxed, and comfortable. You want it to be a familiar real-life place where you can recall every detail. When feeling anxious, perform the deep breathing mentioned earlier. While breathing, go to the happy place in your mind and use the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Technique to think through as many details as possible.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She also has a special interest in working with athletes and has been bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is in the process of becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant to further her expertise in sports psychology. Prior to her move to Abilene, Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.