Eyes halfway closed, running around the apartment, not finding anything I need. Barking to the pile of clothes on the floor, skipping the breakfast in a hurry. Dreaming of the evening before the day has even started. Stepping on to the street just to miss the tram on the last second. There I am, standing in frustration, knowing that I’m running late. The list of unfinished tasks starts to repeat in my head like a cassette from the 90’s that got stuck. I detect signals of stress in every cell of my body.

This is how my typical Monday could look like a couple of years ago.

Not a perfect way to start a day, but not that uncommon, I’m afraid. I knew that I needed better stress management tools, healthier habits, better time management, and I had to learn to say no. But what to do in the middle of the stress response, when all that prevention is too late?

Here are some immediate techniques to use in the moment of feeling stressed or overwhelmed. I’ve been using them quite a lot during the last couple of years, and I dare to say, that nowadays my Mondays are quite likable.

Breathe

Do not underestimate the power of breathing— sometimes the obvious things are the most powerful ones. Studies confirm that taking a deep breath and lengthening the exhale helps activate the vagus nerve, which has a vital role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn, works as the opposite action to the stress response.

As I wrote before, the parasympathetic nervous system acts as a break, whereas sympathetic nervous system works as a gas. Taking a couple of slow, deep breaths all the way down to the belly is like pushing the break and toning the fight or flight reaction down. In fact, a long sigh of relief is our natural psychological and physiological re-setter, according to research.

A simple technique that can be done anytime and anywhere is counting the length of breaths and trying to lengthen the exhale. For instance, try to inhale counting to four, and exhale counting to six. Repeat a couple of times or when you feel a little bit calmer. Here you’ll find some other breathing exercises to try.

Mindset

Did you think that fight or flight response is the only possible reaction to stress? Fortunately, that’s not the case.

Stress resilience is relatively new, but a much-referred topic in the recent stress management discussion. We can’t eliminate stress from our lives completely, so why wouldn’t we learn how to live with it, or even make the best out of it?

Recent studies suggest that our mindset towards stress response affects the harmfulness of it. To some extent, we can decide what to do with the reaction. Does that sound impossible? For science, it doesn’t:

Participants of a Harvard study in 2013 were told to reappraise their stress response by thinking it as a tool to help maximize their performance. As a result, they became more confident and less anxious in the stressful situation. The results even showed different physiological reactions due to the different mindset. How cool is that?

Switch your mindset and think of your stress response as a tool to help you cope with the stressful situation.

Initially, that’s why we have the stress response; to help us survive a stressful situation. Let’s not think it as an enemy — that will only make things worse and can end up stressing about stress itself.

Big picture

Unless the stressor is an acute emergency concerning lives of people, we quite often tend to overreact.

Blowing out a tire, missing a bus, listening to an angry boss, having a messy home, 200 unread emails. These are everyday stressors that can signal our brain to produce extra cortisol and push the gas pedal down.

In the end, these daily stressors are often inevitable, yet not that significant in the long run. Why would you havoc your body with something that is not even that much of importance?

Instead of pulling your hair, honking the horn or letting anxiety press the chest, ask yourself this question:

Does this matter in a month, in a year, or in 10 years?

Quite often, the answer is no. You might as well sit down for a moment, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that all is well.

2-minute mind game

Let’s get back to that Monday morning. Instead of boosting the panic and overflowing with stress my mind looks now more like this when stress steps in:

  • Ok, dear, it’s time to calm down. Breathe. Deep inhale, looong exhale. Repeat.
  • Changing the mindset. Yes, I feel stressed, and I hate it. But hey — that’s just my body trying to help me through a stressful day. Why wouldn’t I redirect that energy to get things done and take a proper rest in the evening to tone it down? If nothing else, it keeps me awake during the day.
  • Let’s see the big picture. Is the situation that bad? Will I remember these struggles in a year? Most probably not. I’ve handled worse. I can do this.

It takes less than 2 minutes, and the chances are that it helps. It is worth trying.

Breathe, mindset, big picture.

Grab that stress response with a firm grip and use it as a tool to your advantage.

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