Stress out

Examining the lines on your hand slowly is a good stress circuit-breaker
Examining the lines on your hand slowly is a good stress circuit-breaker

You might be feeling it this second - that overwhelming, heart- racing rise of the tide.

For some people, it's like being enveloped in white noise. Others feel their stomach begin to twist and curdle or burn with molten lava. Someone else may feel like screaming.

These are signals that you are in the grip of stress.

To quieten the noise, to quell the fire or turn that scream into being serene, too often we reach out for quick fixes that lead to further stress on our bodies.

According to the Yale Stress Centre in the United States, stress increases the risk of lapsing into bad habits - smoking, drinking too much, eating unhealthy foods and becoming sedentary.

All these stress reactors increase the risk of chronic conditions and diseases, such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

"Breaking the link between stress and bad habits will keep you healthy and decrease the risk of developing chronic diseases," experts at the centre say.

So when everything gets overwhelming at work, at home or at the supermarket, a place that many people find scary, take time to refocus.

This is where I hear you lament: "But I'm too busy to take time out" or "I'm far too stressed to do that".

Stop - right - now.

Look at your hand. Examine the veins. Look for freckles and marks. Turn it over and trace the lines of your hand. What patterns can you see? Look at the shape of your fingers, the curve of your nails, the bend of your thumb. Make no judgments about your hand, just observe.

This may have taken you 30 seconds, perhaps a minute, but examine how you feel now. Do you feel calmer? Do you feel the same?

Stress is inextricably linked to thought.

So to stop those great waves of chatter or panic or unhelpful, unhealthy thinking, we need a circuit breaker, one that doesn't lead to those old not-so-faithfuls - caffeine, tobacco, alcohol or sweet or carbohydrate-loaded foods.

Strangely, when we feel hyped up, we turn to things that tend to hype us up even more.

To cope with deadlines, work pressures or relationship, health or money woes, we need to find more calming circuit breakers.

Another simple exercise, which comes straight from the practice of mindfulness, is to eat a piece of fresh or dried fruit, slowly, quietly and with absolute focus.

Take a grape, raisin, dried apricot or strawberry.

Examine it with your eyes, feel its texture between your fingers, smell it, bite it and hear the sound it makes. Let the fruit sit in your mouth and roll it around with your tongue, focus on the flavour and now slowly chew your fruit until it's all gone.

Once again, this is about putting your mind into a place that's calm and quietens the bombardment of stressful or unwanted thoughts.

If they instantly come back, try another tack.

A great one for putting things into perspective is saying the phrase: "Thoughts are just thoughts, not facts".

So if you're one of those people - and there are many of us - who have entire conversations with others in our heads, or imagine disastrous scenarios we fear may happen (mostly they don't), this is a wonderful reality check.

Another great tool is to imagine our unwanted thoughts as clouds scudding overhead. Just let them float by. If you "hook" an unhelpful thought, don't have a big battle with it. Just look at it and then let it go again.

This is a great exercise to do when you're in bed and that raging river of thoughts descends on you.

Day-to-day living can be extraordinarily tough, so it's important to practise these techniques for when the pressure goes on.

It's exactly the same as practising breathing or visualisation techniques ready for giving birth.

You can even set up your own kete (basket) of calmness filled with tools ready to use when times get tough. This could be an inner basket of knowledge or an actual one, which is filled with things that can help you, just like an emergency kit.

It could have a meditation CD or a compilation of favourite music, helpful books or readings, a list of links to helpful websites, some dried fruit, calming teas, juggling balls (try to think of anything else while throwing balls in the air), a favourite children's book like Green Eggs and Ham (to be read out loud, of course) and some pictures of favourite places or inspiring people.

Now, let's take time out with the Harvard Medical School in the United States, which has just released some mini-relaxation exercises.

Here are a couple of one-minute mind calmers:

"Place your hand just beneath your navel, so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three.

"Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation," the medical experts say.

"Alternatively, while sitting comfortably, take a few slow, deep breaths and quietly repeat to yourself 'I am' as you breathe in and 'at peace' as you breathe out. Repeat slowly two or three times. Then feel your entire body relax into the support of your chair."

Here's two minutes' time out from Harvard:

"Count down slowly from 10 to 0. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply, saying '10' to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say 'nine', and so on.

"If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again."

Take three minutes:

"While sitting, take a break from whatever you're doing and check your body for tension. Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to open slightly. Let your shoulders drop. Let your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen so there are spaces between your fingers. Uncross your legs or ankles. Feel your thighs sink into your chair, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your shins and calves become heavier and your feet grow roots into the floor. Now breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly."

Now add this article to your kete of calmness.

Taranaki Daily News