We all go through stressful times where it is difficult not to worry! Stress, obstacles, illness, change, loss or uncertainty are never fun when they arrive, but arrive they do nonetheless. It is natural to feel anxious and overwhelmed when these times occur, but helpful to remember that they are a natural part of the ebbs and flows of life, and despite their inherent pain and discomfort, often bring with them opportunities for growth and increased self-awareness.
It is important during these stressful times to increase the amount of care you give to yourself. The more you are able to help yourself relax and de-stress, the better able you are to cope with anxiety and uncertainty. I have outlined a series of techniques that can help to calm an anxious mind, using approaches from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, Positive Psychology, Herbal Medicine and Mindfulness. I think you will find these techniques both simple to use and incredibly effective, and I hope you will give some of them a try. Before we get started though, here are some quotes to motivate and inspire:
What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise. - Oscar Wilde
The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results. - Carl Jung
Grounding in Nature
Worried and anxious thoughts are created and perpetuated in our minds, and take up a tremendous amount of our energy and awareness. If you think of the location of this energy, it is pooled and concentrated in our heads, sometimes in the form of repetitive, ruminative or catastrophic thinking. One of the ways to help refocus this excess upward energy is by drawing it out of our heads and downward towards the ground instead. Walking and sitting in nature is one of the most grounding exercises you can do. There is nothing more close or synonymous with the ground than "earth" itself!
Being in nature is great for our stress levels. It lowers blood pressure, boosts our immune system, improves our mood and engages our senses of sight, smell, touch and hearing. It allows us to broaden our focus from the internal world of our own minds and open it up to the immense world around us. It also allows us to notice and observe the natural cyclical order of things; the bud, bloom and fade of a blossom, the changing of leaves, the rising and falling of the ocean tide. Similarly we can understand that feelings and stressful times also come and go like waves in the ocean. They are not permanent, and this awareness and understanding can help reduce suffering when those difficult times are with us.
If you have a park near you, a garden, a beach, a field or a forest, use these as resources to calm yourself when you are feeling anxious. Be mindful and pay attention to what your eyes are taking in by looking at the sky and the overall landscape. Alternatively switch your focus to small details as well, like a grain of sand, a blade of grass, a leaf or a particular flower that appeals to you. If it is possible, remove your shoes and engage your sense of touch through your feet. Feel the grass beneath you, or the sand in between your toes, the cool smooth surface of a stone underneath your feet or the chill of ocean water.
Also notice what scents are around you. Are roses in bloom that you can walk up to and smell? Freshly cut grass? The smell of ocean water? Noticing and focusing your attention on all of these beautiful, natural scents will help you to relax and distract your mind from worrying.
Lastly, pay attention to what you hear. Are there birds chirping? Waves crashing? People laughing or dogs barking? Focus your attention on these sounds and try to hold your focus there. The more senses you engage and focus on, the less energy is available to pool in your mind and fuel worrisome thoughts.
Every individual's life is intimately connected with Nature. How people accommodate and adapt to the seasons and the laws of Nature will determine how well they draw from the origin or spring of their lives....When one can manage the polarity of changes of the universe, one will have clarity and not be confused by any disorder. - Neijing: The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine
Three Good Things Exercise
Three Good Things is an exercise developed and experimentally tested by the father of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman. Dr. Seligman developed this quick and simple exercise and asked participants in a research study to complete it daily for one week. Not only did the exercise increase feelings of happiness and decrease negative and depressed feelings, but most participants enjoyed the exercise so much that they continued to do it daily after the experiment was over.
Dr. Martin Seligman says, "We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyse bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savouring what went well."
Training yourself to focus on positive events to decrease anxiety and depression is very simple, practical advice and makes a tremendous amount of sense! Even better, the Three Good Things exercise is quick and easy to complete, incredibly effective and only requires a pen, paper and a few minutes of your time each day. Here is how to do the exercise:
1. Every night before bed, write down 3 good things that happened to you that day.
2. For each good thing, write a brief explanation of the cause, or why it happened.
3. Do this exercise daily for one week. Thats it!
I think after the week is over, you will find the exercise very addictive and may like to continue doing it. As a little extra, I recommend re-reading your Three Good Things list from the previous evening first thing when you wake up in the morning. It helps to start the day on a positive note too and reminds you to focus on the good things in life before your day even begins! For a brief description of the exercise by Dr. Martin Seligman himself, view his YouTube clip here.
Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have. - Buddha
Aromatic Herbal Teas
Aromatic herbs have been used for centuries for their ability to improve mood, support mental health, relax the nervous system, settle an uneasy stomach, promote restful sleep and decrease both anxiety and depression. Aromatics encompass a large variety of herbs that are considered "nervines," due to their capacity to interact with and effect the nervous system in the body and balance and calm the mind and mood.
Aromatic herbs contain aromatic essential oils that are highly effective in balancing various systems and tension in the body, and include some commonly known herbs such as peppermint, chamomile, lavender, rosemary, hops and holy basil. Aromatics also increase what is known as heart rate variability (HRV) or changes in the beats per minute of the heart. High HRV is positively correlated with a healthy heart, a balanced mental and emotional state and with adaptive feelings of deep appreciation, satisfaction and creativity.
Aromatic herbal teas are wonderfully soothing and balancing during times of anxiety and stress. They also often aid the digestive system and alleviate any digestive issues that are caused or exacerbated by stress. I have listed below some exceptional herbal teas to use when you are feeling anxious and have detailed some of their main health benefits as well:
-Chamomile Tea: calms anxiety, irritability and fear, promotes relaxation and sleep, improves symptoms of IBS and diarrhoea caused by stress, relaxes tight muscles, aids with general stomach and period pain.
-Passionflower Tea: excellent for aiding insomnia, eases anxiety, tension and irritability, calms the nervous system, reduces muscle cramps and heart palpitations.
-Peppermint Tea: eases indigestion, helps with symptoms of IBS, relaxes tight and painful gut muscles, can help with headaches and migraines.
-Lavender Tea: improves mood, promotes restful sleep, helps nervous exhaustion, can aid with mild depression, soothes nervous indigestion, mildly pain relieving.
-Lemon Balm Tea: calms the nervous system, reduces anxiety, reduces nervousness and heart palpitations, calms nervous indigestion.
-Holy Basil (Tulsi) Tea: referred to as the "Happiness Herb," anti-depressant, lowers the stress hormone cortisol, supports mental wellbeing, calms body and mind, aids insomnia.
I have included links to pre-made teas that you can purchase, and I hope you will give some of these a try when you are feeling anxious. Herbal teas count towards your daily intake of water as well, so are excellent to drink regularly throughout the day to keep healthy and adequately hydrated.
The highest ideal of cure is the speedy, gentle, and enduring restoration of health by the most trustworthy and least harmful way. - Samuel Hahnemann
Mindfulness of the Breath Meditation
Mindfulness of the breath meditation is a practice that allows you to disengage your senses, withdraw your focus from your thoughts and feelings and place the focus of your awareness solely on the breath instead. This practice will help you to develop the skills to quiet a racing mind and detach yourself from identifying with and becoming influenced by your anxious thoughts and worries.
Meditation has incredibly powerful effects for stress reduction and anxiety reduction. It has been shown in studies to reduce reactivity in the amygdala, which is the fear processing centre in the brain that tends to be overactive in people who are prone to excessive worrying. It is effective both for anxiety triggered by short term, situational stress or chronic, more generalised anxiety and worry.
Meditation can be practiced on your own and is excellent to incorporate into a daily ritual. There are many different types of meditation, but mindfulness of the breath meditation is very simple to do and is a great style of meditation to start with if you are a beginner. Here is how to do it:
1. Take a seated posture, make sure your spine is straight (but not rigid), and your chin is parallel to the floor. Relax your shoulders and place your hands either on your knees, or place them palms up in your lap, one on top of the other with thumbs touching.
2. Close your eyes and focus your attention on the space between your upper lip and nostril, where you can feel the movement of the breath in and out.
3. Keep your attention focused on the movement of the breath entering and leaving your nostrils. You will notice that it feels cool on the inhale and warm on the exhale.
4. If your mind wanders from your breath, simply take note and return your awareness to the movement of the breath. Do not judge or criticise yourself when your mind wanders, it is completely natural for this to happen. Simply keep bringing your awareness back to the breath without judgement. Over time and with practice, this will become easier.
5. If you struggle to retain your focus on the breath, use counting to help keep your focus there. Count each inhale and exhale as one unit; inhale-exhale 1, inhale-exhale 2, inhale-exhale 3, and so on. Count from 1-8 and back down from 8-1. Repeat, but feel free to drop the counting when you begin to feel more focused.
If possible, start by setting aside 5-10 minutes a day to practice meditation. Often first thing in the morning or before bed in the evening are convenient and beneficial times to meditate. You can also meditate throughout the day when you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by anxious thoughts. Start slowly and keep practicing; even 5 minutes of meditation a day will have positive benefits when practiced regularly. If you would prefer guided meditation, Calm and Headspace are excellent apps to try, and YouTube has some helpful guided meditation videos as well.
When there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt. - St. Francis de Sales
Radical acceptance is a skill taught in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), and is an excellent technique to use when coping with stressful or anxiety inducing situations. Radical acceptance is a shift in attitude; it is to adopt an attitude of complete acceptance towards whatever negative or stressful events are unfolding currently in your life. It means that you accept the current situation fully, rather than get angry at the situation, fight the situation or wish the situation to go away.
Radical acceptance does not mean allowing abusive behaviour from others and does not mean throwing in the towel and giving up!
Rather radical acceptance as a technique allows you to acknowledge and accept that the current situation is the result of a long chain of events that have unfolded in the past and is not spontaneous or sudden in nature. Reflecting on and accepting the many factors and events that led up to a current situation, including one's own contributions, can aid in understanding the situation more fully and can facilitate constructive problem solving from a place of deeper understanding. Often anxiety is triggered by feelings of powerlessness. Radical acceptance however allows you to accept fully what is happening, understand the broader context of the situation, acknowledge your role in the long chain of events that led up to it and empower you to channel productive energy into changing the situation for the better.
To use radical acceptance, here are some coping thoughts from The Dialectical Behavioural Skills Workbook to remind yourself of during stressful times:
-This moment is exactly as it should be, given what's happened before it
-My feelings make me uncomfortable right now, but I can accept them
-I can't change what has already happened
-This is an opportunity for me to learn how to cope with my fears
-I've already been through many other painful experiences, and I've survived
-The present is the only moment I have control over
-The present moment is perfect, even if I don't like what's happening to me
-I can be anxious and still deal with the situation
-These are just my feelings and eventually they will go away
-This moment is the result of over a million other decisions
-This situation won't last forever
-It is what it is
If you find yourself getting anxious often, keep a list of your favourite radical acceptance coping thoughts on a piece of paper in your wallet or handbag and read it over when your anxious thoughts arise. The more you are able to accept, cope with and stop fighting anxiety, the less power and impact it will have on your life.
If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever. - Dalai Lama
I hope you will test some of these techniques yourself the next time you are feeling anxious. It is important to remember that stress, obstacles, illness, change, loss and uncertainty in life are a given, and the arising and ceasing of these difficult times are not always within our control to change. However adopting an attitude of letting go and unconditionally accepting life's inevitable trials and triumphs, embracing the bad equally along with the good, will bring a peace of mind and a zest for life that worrying, fighting and trying to control the uncontrollable can never bring. Both sunny days and stormy nights always come and go of their own accord. The good times come and they pass; the bad times come and they too pass. Like a mountain, we all possess the ability to remain still, unaffected by the storms that arrive and equally unattached to the sunny days too. It is indeed the difficult times that provide us with the opportunity to practice remaining grateful, calm, peaceful and still, regardless of our external circumstances. Use these practices to cultivate stillness within, and nothing external can ever rob you of your peace of mind.
Of course there is no formula for success except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings. - Arthur Rubenstein