Want some effective, easily implemented approaches to managing the stress we all feel about what’s happening in the world today? Read on!
Go on a news fast
A lot of my coaching work centers around stress management. When a client is going through the roof with stress, one of the first things I suggest is experimenting with a news fast. Typically there’s resistance to the idea, but they agree to trying it for a week and seeing what happens.
Inevitably, they come back the next week and say, “Wow! That made such a difference!”
Try it yourself. For the next week, don’t watch the news. Don’t go to the news sites. Stay off Facebook if you have to. See what happens. See how you feel.
Even if you don’t decide to cut out your news consumption completely (staying informed is important, after all), you’ll have a better frame of reference for how your consumption impacts you so you can make better decisions about it.
If you’ve ever gotten out of bed on the wrong foot, you know that how you start your day can set the stage for the rest of the day.
Explore ways to set a positive tone for your day first thing in the morning. For example, even before you get out of bed, you can make a habit of doing a gratitude review. As you lie there, ask yourself, “What can I be grateful for?”
Positive reading can help set the direction of your day. You could go to the page with positive news sites I mentioned above. Or you could find books that lend themselves to short, bite-sized bursts of reading you can incorporate easily into your morning.
For example, years ago, recognizing that I’m not naturally positive in the morning and that could lead to a downward spiral for the whole day, I started a morning reading practice with a book of short chapters with inspiring stories on people who were making the world a better place called Stone Soup for the World.
Finally, if you have a habit of turning on the news first thing in the morning – stop! The only thing that does is suck you into its toxic gravitational pull and start your day out with a dose of what’s wrong in the world.
A super simple way to dial down your stress is a breathing practice where your out-breath is longer than your in-breath. For simplicity, let’s say it’s a 2-to-1 ratio, where your out-breath is twice as long as your in-breath.
So if you breathe in for a count of four, you would breathe out for a count of eight.
Why does this have a calming effect? When you’re feeling stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is engaged. That’s the part of your autonomic nervous system that cues the fight-or-flight response.
It turns out that breathing out longer than you breathe in flips the switch on that and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which cues what is sometimes called the “rest-and-digest” response.
Or, to describe it another way, a longer out-breath than in-breath tells your body it’s OK to kick back and chill out.
A simple experiment my clients invariably tell me has a positive impact is the sixty-second breath break. Set a recurring reminder on your phone or computer, maybe hourly, to take a breath break. Stop and focus on your breath for sixty seconds, or simply breathe deeply for ten breaths.
The beauty of this is three-fold. First, it taps into the stress-reducing potential of deep breathing. Second, it forces you to pause on a regular basis so your mind can’t go the whole day on a runaway train. And third, it takes very little time, which means it’s an easily sustainable habit you can develop.
Your brain processes only a tiny fraction of the information it is bombarded with every day. Much of what you notice is the result of what you choose to focus on.
Instead of focusing on what’s wrong and how the world is going to hell, give yourself a goal of stopping on a regular basis and asking, “What’s good here?”
You can almost always find good things to notice, regardless of the situation. It might be something positive that happened. Or something somebody said. Or a beautiful view out the window. Or the fact that traffic was unexpectedly light on the commute home.
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages about what’s wrong. Unless we get proactive about it, what’s good doesn’t have a chance to make it onto our radar screens in any significant, lingering way.
Making it a habit to ask, “what’s good here” is a way to train your brain to both notice more of the good that already exists, and experience it more fully.
I call gratitude the well-being wonder drug. Research has shown that people who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, less stressed, and more optimistic.
One easy way to build a gratitude practice is by keeping a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as sitting down and writing down five things you are grateful for. They don’t have to be big and dramatic. Even small things will do.
As you write the list, don’t just jot it down and move on. For each one, stop and experience the feeling of gratitude. Savor it. Fan the flames.
Studies have shown that those who exercise self-compassion are happier, less depressed, less anxious, and more resilient.
Compassion for others seems to be a natural response. Compassion for ourselves, not so much.
One easy way to start exploring how to direct it towards ourselves is writing a self-compassion letter. When you find yourself in a situation that could use some compassion (e.g., you’re feeling overwhelmed, or you tried something and failed, or you’ve had a challenging event in your life), write yourself a letter.
Imagine you are writing to a dear friend who is experiencing the same thing. Imagine that you are writing from the perspective of unconditional love and support. What would you tell them? What kind words would you offer them? How would you comfort them? What suggestions would you have for how they can be kind to and nurture themselves?
When you’re done, set it aside. After a while, come back and read it again, this time from the perspective of the letter’s recipient.
Could smiling really change your life? It turns out the answer is yes. Researchers have found that the act of smiling releases the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.
Smiling is most effective when it’s what they call a Duchesne smile, an authentic smile that engages your eyes (crinkling your crow’s feet).
So try this as an experiment. Whenever it occurs to you – when you’re sitting there at work, or driving the kids to soccer practice, or standing in line at the grocery store – smile. Not a big cheesy grin, more of a subtle Mona Lisa smile. Soften into it, imagining it’s a real smile. Let it creep up to your eyes as well.
Practice smiling in situations where you aren’t feeling tense. Then explore using it as an intervention. When you notice yourself feeling a little impatient or irritated, maybe standing at the edge of getting pulled down the rabbit hole, smile. Focus on the feeling and see if it helps you step back.
Stress doesn’t just happen in your mind. It also happens in your body. Your body is holding that stress somewhere, constricting and contracting. Maybe it’s a tightness in your shoulders, or a clenched jaw, or a tension in your abdomen.
When you notice a feeling of stress, scan your body to see where you feel it physically. When you find it, breathe deeply into that spot. As you breathe out, let go. To the degree that you’re able, relax that spot. Feel the tension dissolving.
The more you play with this, the better you’ll get at it.
Take a cue from the fact that we humans evolved as social beasts. All too often when things get stressful, we magnify that stress in our interactions with others. We bitch and moan, and we listen to their tales of anger and outrage. It creates an echo chamber of what’s wrong.
Instead, make a concerted effort to create opportunities for positive connection. It might be a regular mealtime ritual with your family where each person shares something they’re grateful for (and maybe explains why, and how that feels). Or it could be a daily connection with a co-worker to shine a light on the answer to “what’s good here?” Or maybe a regular meeting of people who focus on what’s going right in the world and what and who is inspiring them.
The more positive interactions you build into your life, the more positive stimulus it creates and the more positive echoes it generates, both for you and for others.
Finally, when it all feels like too much, give up.
Not permanently, mind you. Just take a step back and take a breather. Give yourself permission to ignore what’s happening and do nothing about it for a week. Allow yourself to stop being a force for change temporarily and let yourself rest and rejuvenate.
You will be far more effective in the long run if you give yourself a mental vacation from it all from time to time.