In this emotional equivalent to an ultramarathon, it’s key to have some stress-reducing strategies available that work quickly and efficiently to help you hit the reset button.
Here’s why: Struggling with chronic worry gets in the way of effectively managing your emotions. Unfortunately, many people who experience distress try to escape their unpleasant emotions by distracting themselves in ways that ultimately backfire.
Rather than dealing with anxiety and uncertainty by getting lost worrying, then chasing short-term fixes with longer-term consequences, it’s helpful to experiment with quick strategies that will empower you. These strategies are not necessarily a cure, but can help lower the intensity of overwhelming emotions, allowing you to recalibrate to better deal with challenges you face.
Music as medicine
Focusing on relaxing sounds reduces stress. In research spearheaded by Dr. Veena Graff, an assistant professor in the department of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania, preoperative patients were assigned either to music medicine (listening to Marconi Union’s “Weightless”) or prescribed a benzodiazepine. Remarkably, serene music proved nearly as effective in easing patients’ jitters as the medication option, with no side effects.
To honor your taste, explore the options and create a playlist that you find comforting. Keep in mind that we can improve our experience with an uplifting soundtrack. “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear,” as Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote in “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”
Marsha Linehan, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington, popularized regulating intense emotions by immediately lowering your body temperature by creating a mini plunge pool for your face.
To do it, fill a large bowl with ice water, set a timer for 15 to 30 seconds, take a deep breath and hold your breath while dipping your face into the water. While this isn’t conventionally relaxing, it will slow your heart rate, allowing blood to flow more easily to your brain.
Pace your breathing
In “The Healing Power of the Breath,” Drs. Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg offer a range of exercises to promote resilience. Slow your breathing down to six breaths a minute by consciously inhaling and exhaling (to practice this timing, you can use a second hand and inhale for five seconds, exhale for five seconds, and repeat four times, or try a guided recording).
Paced breathing offers a host of physiological benefits, like reducing your blood pressure, which helps promote a sense of tranquillity.
Learn to anchor yourself
Another way to stay present rather than spin into a crisis is to notice if you are engaged in thinking that isn’t helping you. Learning to see more clearly as opposed to jumping to conclusions is a nice remedy for anxiety. One brief way to enter the moment is known as “anchoring.”
Start by physically centering yourself by feeling your heels on the floor, which evokes a feeling of being grounded in reality. Then take a moment to observe: What am I thinking? Feeling in my body? Doing? Then ask yourself: Is my response: A) helpful? B) aligned with my values now? Or C) related to future worries or a past problem?
Stepping back to decide if our thoughts are helpful can get us out of rumination mode.
Practice your responses
If you struggle with physical sensations of anxiety, like muscle tension and feeling like you can’t get enough air, a counterintuitive yet important way to manage is to practice bringing on those sensations in more quiet moments so you can learn how to tolerate your response in stressful times.
You can create sensations associated with fear (such as muscle tension, dizziness and shortness of breath) by holding a plank position, spinning in circles or running in place.
By practicing managing your emotions, you’ll experience a sense of freedom in your life.
Jenny Taitz is an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.