We all know too much stress is bad for us.
But sometimes it can be stressful to even hear it if you don’t know what to do about it! Where do we even start? Life is busy. We have lots on the go and not all of us have time for yoga retreats and massages.
First of all, when we get stressed, what happens in our body? Our sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that helps push us into action. When our nervous system detects a threat – whether real or perceived – it will trigger our fight/flight/freeze response. The key here is that it’s real or perceived. So that means deadlines at work, a horrible colleague, a fight with your partner – these are all threats that spark the fight/flight/freeze response even though they aren’t directly linked to our survival. Once the stressor has passed and our body feels safe, it then it switches on our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part that calms us down.
Perhaps you might have heard of the vagus nerve if you attend regular yoga or meditation classes. But if you don’t, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body and it is influences your heart rate, respiration, and digestion. When you know how to stimulate your vagus nerve then you can be in charge when that calm, collected feeling of rest and digest happens.
But the thing is, we can’t always get away from life’s stresses – as much as we might want to. Life is a lot about making the most out of what we have right now. So what can we do in the face of enormous stress?
We can implement little ways to calm our body. These little moments accumulate, and can be very helpful in combating the add up of stress in our body.
Here are a few ways that can help you find a sense of calm.
When you are totally immersed in a creative activity, you might find yourself in what’s known as “the zone” or a state of “flow.” This meditative-like state focuses your mind and allows you a few moments when life’s troubles and worries fade into the background. One 2016 study of 39 university students, staff, and faculty found that after making art, 75% of participants had lower levels of cortisol (stress hormones) in their saliva. It didn’t matter whether the art was representational or scribbling. Some participants were artists, others weren’t, but their skill level made no difference. Art comes in all shapes and sizes too. You can draw, write, journal, photograph, sketch, collage. The options are literally endless. If you don’t have time to create art, then try doodling. You don’t need anything fancy for this. Just a pen and paper. So go ahead, grab a piece of paper and allow your pen to make marks on the page, don’t think too much just go for it. See what unfolds…
It doesn’t matter whether you can sing or not, who cares! The act of singing signals rest/digest processes for body. This is because your larynx is connected to your vagus nerve. So have a new song you love? As a project you can try to learn the lyrics and make a little performance – just for yourself.
Soft belly breathing.
Our society is fixated on sticking in our tummies and puffing out our chests but this actually causes muscles to tense and respiration rate to increase. As a result, most of us take shallow breathes. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and other forms of emotional distress. In James Gordon’s book, ‘Transforming Trauma’ one of the most powerful tools he uses in his practice is deep belly breathing. “When you bring air down into the lower portion of the lungs, where oxygen exchange is most efficient, everything changes. Heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms. Breathing this way also gives people a sense of control over their body and their emotions that is extremely therapeutic.” He teaches it to nearly every patient he sees, from people with advanced cancer, to children with ADHD, to those with PTSD.
Guided visualisation & meditation.
Meditation is extremely beneficial to our health, everyone knows that but some people feel skeptical or unsure about the practice. If meditation feels difficult to you, you can start doing it in a group. Guided visualisations tend to be easiest for the wandering mind and they are super powerful because your body thinks it’s happening in reality. That means you can be in the midst of winter and imagine you are on a tropical beach in Bora Bora with white sand in between your toes. Imagine what that can do for your nervous system!
Everyone knows yoga, just like meditation, is good for you. But did you know why? Yoga is extremely helpful because it unwinds the body’s deeper layers of fascia (as opposed to working with the muscles in more dynamic movements) and keeps us engaged in deep belly breathing. It is a moment by moment practice that keeps us connected to the present and inside of our body. The entire process of yoga allows for a release of deeply held tension in the body and mind.
Hugs & cuddles.
Who doesn’t love a good cuddle? I read somewhere that we need about 10 hugs a day to boost brain health. I don’t know how reliable that study is, or where I found it, but I liked it anyway. Hugging feels good and when we receive a hug it activates acupressure points that release oxytocin (the love/bonding neurochemical). This is quickly detected by receptors in the brain and body that sends signals of safety to the autonomic nervous system. I know so many people in the world live alone, and rarely receive any type of human interaction. If you have the money, a massage can also create the same response in the brain. Also, pet cuddles count too!
Need something for yourself?
Sometimes it’s hard to carve out time for ourselves. I offer one on one art therapy sessions as well as group art therapy workshops to help combat stress, increase feelings of belonging and promote overall wellbeing. They are only one hour of your day and can be greatly beneficial for your wellbeing. If you’re looking for a chance to re-group and find some calm, contact me for more information.
Want to learn more?
My name is Kimberly Hetherington and I’m passionate about helping you find healing, connection and joy in art.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on: