Many of us are feeling the effects to varying degrees of chronic stress. Given our 24/7 news cycle which rarely has anything positive to offer, it’s not surprising that rates of anxiety have been increasing. We seem to be fed a constant diet of fear. If only this or that group was eliminated from our lives all would be well and we would be safe. Sadly, reality just doesn’t work that way. Life is full of problems and this is true for every life. I would challenge anyone reading this to examine their own life and tell me that they have never had cause for anxiety, fear or just plain suffering. Some of us like to think there was mythical time in the past when life was somehow simpler and easier. But if you are truly honest, would you really want to go back to that time? Was it really as great as your hindsight suggests? And even if it was – for you anyway – the fact is time only moves in one direction. We can’t go back. We can only accept what is right now and move on from there. In the complex world of today there are no easy answers. Pointing fingers might make us feel good but it solves nothing.
So what is a person to do when faced with our daily bombardment of negativity. One possibility is to try and ignore it. Turn off the TV and the computer. Avoid newspapers, magazines and radio. Great idea! But just as we look between our fingers at horror movies, few of us can really stay away from current events for long. And sometimes it’s not national issues that get to us but something closer to home, like family or neighborhood discord that’s not so easily avoidable.
Another strategy is to pick a problem and find some way to address it with your own time, money and/or expertise. This can be especially effective at a local level where you can sometimes actually see results from your efforts. Or even if the results you seek extend beyond your view, you can at least feel like you’re contributing to a potential solution. Helping others is widely prescribed as an antidote to stress and even depression. It certainly beats complaining and blaming.
Still the feeling of helplessness in the face of any problem – illness, life changes, loss – can cause stress. When you’re in the middle of a crisis it can be difficult to see clearly or to remember that all things change and nothing lasts forever. Although it may seem simplistic, sometimes even a momentary distraction can be helpful.
One very simple example is breathing. There is actually science behind the calming power of breathing. A recent article in the journal Science describes the “rhythmic activity of a cluster of neurons in the brainstem [that] initiates breathing . . . [and] has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function.” The article states that “Slow, controlled breathing has been used for centuries to promote mental calming, and it is used clinically to suppress excessive arousal such as panic attacks.” This study found a physiological and neural relationship between deep breaths and peaceful feeling. According to an article in Yoga Basics which references this study:
“These findings suggest that the rhythm of our breathing directly relates to our higher-level brain activity. For example, short, rapid breathing warns the brain that we may be in a stressful situation. . . .In contrast, deep breathing and long sighs encourage the opposite response. These tell our brain that we are safe”
There’s a key – the word “safe”. When we are fearful it is usually because we feel unsafe. If we can convince our brains that we really are safe, a major cause of stress can be relieved. A simple practice like deep breathing with a focus on long exhales can go a long way towards achieving that goal. Now we even have scientific evidence that this reaction is real. What’s even better is the knowledge that breath is always available. We take it for granted and often don’t even notice it, but as long as we are alive, we are capable of breathing. For some of us, breathing is obstructed and difficult. But to the extent that we are capable of slow, deep breaths, this can be a good coping strategy when feeling stressed.
Another potential fear and stress-reducing practice is to create a gratitude list. We’ve all heard of these, but how often do you actually remember all the positive things in your life? Especially when you feel surrounded by a huge seemingly insurmountable problem. If you can’t think of anything positive, try reading this article from the Chopra Center. Even the most hard-core fear monger is bound to find something in this list to be grateful for. Somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) I read a suggestion that when feeling fearful or just overwhelmed to look around you and simply name everything you see. The goal of this exercise is to bring you into the present moment. Often what we fear is something from the past or something that might happen in the future but hasn’t happened yet, and, in fact, may never happen. If we come back to the present moment it will keep us from regretting something we can’t change or anticipating something that may never happen.
Of course, no coping strategy works if you forget to do it. And all interventions can be easily overlooked during a crisis even for the most stable and centered of us. But when things seem at their bleakest, sometimes the only thing you can do is find a way to cope. A little relief might help you to get to through the crisis. And then maybe next time you’ll remember the practice that helped. As alway, practice is the key. The more we practice, the better we get.