Self-care and Seasons Greetings
This past year has been a doozy! It’s been fraught with challenges left, right, and center. This has resulted in an increase in reported anxiety and worry, not only across the country, but around the world.
And…the challenges that we face are ongoing. Seems like a bleak way to begin, right? Well, take heart! Science tells us that there are some actual, practical things that we can do to address our anxiety and help us manage this ongoing stress.
Different Kinds of Stress
All stress is not bad. Some stress is helpful—like the kind of stress you feel when learning something new. It pushes you to get better at this new skill. Some stress is unhelpful—like the kind of stress you feel when you’ve done poorly on a test, or didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for. Some stress is toxic. This is the kind of stress we’re addressing here.
Toxic stress can lead to serious health problems, so it’s important to learn ways to manage our stress.
Your Brain and Stress
The brain is constantly using information from the body (called interoception) to help anticipate the body’s needs and maintain the body budget (called allostasis).
Your body budget can get out of whack if the brain miscalculates the body’s needs. Over time these miscalculations can impact your health in serious ways. The brain makes these calculations using information from the body, previous experiences, and current information to predict what the body will need to maintain a healthy balance.
But if the information it receives is faulty, its predictions will be inaccurate. So, let’s look at some basic body budget balancing ideas:
- Get some sleep! I know. I know. How do we get a good rest when we have so much on our minds, causing us to toss and turn all night? The thing is, our bodies need rest. When sleep is lacking, the messages that are sent to our brain impacts the predictions that our brain makes to address this body budget deficit. This can affect our level of perceived stress and anxiety. So try meditation, pick a calming sound track, take a relaxing bath before bed—get in the habit of creating a good sleep routine. And, for heaven’s sake, put away all those devices that pull at our attention and keep us awake.
- Choose healthy foods. I know that I sound like your mom, but fight the tendency to polish off that bag of chips while binge-watching a Netflix series. When we feel significant amounts of anxiety, some of us (well, let’s be honest, many of us) turn to comfort foods to, well, provide comfort. But that comfort is short-lived, and while we might feel better in the moment, the situations that we are dealing with are not short term. Over time, feeding our bodies with food that does not provide good nutrition sends messages to our brain that all is not well, impacting our brain’s predictive nature. So try to eat foods that allow the body to send healthy messages.
- Move! Physical exercise is a stress-buster because it allows the body to help regulate the body budget. Movement helps change the predictions that the brain makes by changing your location or situation. So, when it feels like stress is getting you down, take the dog for a walk, or turn on some music, and dance like no one’s watching, or roll out that yoga mat and YouTube a great yoga class.
Okay, so you’re getting a solid eight hours of sleep, you're eating healthy day and night, and you’re exercising routinely… but you still need some help.
Train Your Brain to Respond Differently to Stress
Remember, stress is not something that happens to you, your brain predicts the experience of stress (like it predicts all other emotions). Here are some things that you can try to affect the predictions your brain makes and reduce your stress.
- Increase your emotion vocabulary. In one study of emotions, published in 2015 by NCBI, people who were asked to identify their emotions throughout the day selected only one 90% of the time (joy). The other most commonly identified emotions were love and anxiety.
Improving your emotion vocabulary can increase your ability to accurately describe how you are feeling, called emotional granularity. Research tells us that the better we are at being precise in our ability to label our emotional experiences, the better we are at handling these stressful situations, even if these situations are quite intense. The more precise we can be in labeling our emotions, the more information we have about the situation and potential ways to deal with that situation.
For example, there is a significant difference between me saying that “I’m angry with my daughter for leaving dirty dishes in the sink” and “I’m feeling frustrated and resentful because she has left dirty dishes in the sink.”
There is more information in the second statement because clearly we have had this conversation before (frustrated) and I don’t want to keep cleaning up after her (resentful). This extra information may help me determine how best to address this issue with her that will a) result in the dishes making their way into the dishwasher without my assistance and; b) result in her not being grounded for the remainder of the week (which is really a punishment for both of us).
Increased emotional vocabulary also aids in better decision making because it gives us more information to use to work towards a more successful result.
- Emotion reappraisal can be very helpful and much more so than, say, emotion suppression. Emotion reappraisal suggests that we try to reframe the situation in non-emotional terms. That means you try to observe what is happening from a more objective vantage point.
Emotion suppression requires us to not show how the emotional situation is affecting us—just pretend that everything is OK. Studies show that there are some very negative outcomes associated with suppressing your emotions: memory loss of information during the stressful event, a dampening of experiencing more positive emotions, and physical consequences of increased cardiovascular demands.
Emotional reappraisal has no such negative outcomes. So, get out your magnifying glass and try to observe the situation objectively. When you find yourself dealing with whether to meet your friends for a party during a pandemic, rather than bemoaning the fact that you really want to get together and are feeling lonely and resentful, look at the facts clearly and simply.
These facts should help you to make an informed decision and maybe figure out how you can get together and still remain safe and healthy, rather than throwing caution to the wind and creating a super-spreading event.
- Recategorizing allows you to evaluate what you are experiencing and come up with an alternative explanation for this situation. For example, if you wake up in the morning and are “feeling down or depressed,” did you sleep well that night? Been eating a lot of holiday food? Find that the sofa has an exact imprint of your body?
See points 1-3 above on body budgeting—maybe that bummer feeling is just your body telling you that it needs a bit of help. Alternatively, if you feel anxious about getting a needle (perhaps for a vaccine), and you feel butterflies in your stomach, maybe those body messages are not a fear of a needle at all, but a feeling of anticipation that you will then have the ability to get back to “normal” again. Reframing how you think about the situation helps the brain change its predictions.
The situations that we are all experiencing right now are challenging and there are no easy answers. And some strategies might work better for you than others. The good news is that these strategies that we use for emotion regulation—our ability to manage our emotions—can positively impact more than our ability to deal with our stress.
What works best for you when you’re feeling stressed?