In our now now now society, we want everything on demand: our internet, our Ubers, our full seasons of TV shows (thanks, Netflix!). When it comes to our mental health, I advise that patience is a virtue; changes are absolutely possible and attainable when you put the time and effort into the process, and the results are typically long lasting, sustainable, and relieving.
That said, welcome to your cheat sheet for quick-acting, on-the-go mental health tips that can help you feel better in times of stress (think: awkward social situations, turbulent flights, stressful work crises, moments of poor self-esteem). Consider this 3-pack of techniques when you need a little help and a counselling session isn’t possible. Lauren’s Top Tips are here to save the day!
Breathe. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
In a moment of anxiety or stress, breathing is often the first thing to go out the window. Big mistake. Huge. Our breath is a physiological superhero that allows us to regulate stress hormones (oh hello adrenaline), slow down a stress-related elevated heart rate, and help clear our heads for more helpful self-talk. This technique is easy to master. I suggest practicing for even one to two minutes per day; then it will be second nature at times when you need it. You want to focus on slow, controlled breathing, preferably (but not mandatory) breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, for a count of 4-5 seconds per each inhale and exhale. Think of a bow gliding along the strings of a violin, slow and smooth, rather than breathing in quickly, holding the breath for a few seconds, and then forcibly exhaling. You also want to focus on filling up the lower lobes of your lungs, as if you were trying to fill up your belly with air. Breathing shortly, into the top of your chest, will only increase feelings of anxiety. Try this for about 10 breaths and notice how you feel. I’m betting you will notice a sense of calm and control that is invaluable during times of stress.
Change the conversation.
Now that you’ve relaxed your body and mind with your breath, it’s time to work on your self-talk. This is the running conversation you have with yourself, the little voice in your head, that is going on during all your waking hours. Pay attention: what kinds of thoughts are taking up most of the dialogue? If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or full of self-doubt, I’m guessing they are negative thoughts. Shut these down right now. Not only are they wickedly unhelpful, but they are also likely untrue, at least to some degree. Attempt to find even a more realistic point of view (positively leaning) to bring your focus to. Finding it a challenge? Channel your best friend and imagine what he or she may say to you about the situation. It’s doubtful that she would say “you’re right, you’re done for!” and more likely that she would calm your nerves by offering a solution or a realistic point of view that will help calm you and set you up to finding a solution to the problem or help you feel better.
Mindful reminder. Remember the popular expression “stop and smell the roses”?
It’s an oldie but goodie for a reason – during our hectic days, we often forget the five senses that make us human and help us connect to our sense of self and ability to exist. The buzz word for this is “mindfulness”, and its popularity has to do with its effectiveness; so why not give it a shot? The easiest introduction to mindfulness is to start with eating a food. The idea is to experience it slowly with each of your senses to gain a fuller appreciation for what you’re consuming. This leads to feeling much more satisfied in every way. Let’s practice together: you just went to one of those insane ice cream parlors that have popped up everywhere. Instead of downing your treat in a millisecond while Instagramming the pics of your dessert (you know who you are), let’s focus on savouring it with each of your senses. Sight: how beautiful is this cone?! Look at the creamy-looking ice cream, the colourful sprinkles, the way the one drip runs down the cone, the intricate pattern of the waffle cone. What do you notice? Smell: take a whiff. Can you smell that Dutch chocolate? Does the cone have that fresh-baked smell? Taste: go in for that first bite. How do the flavours mix? Do they complement each other? Ooh, that hit of sea salt in the caramel is a surprise! Sound: go for the slurp. Bite that cone and listen to that snap and crunch. Tactile touch: how does that waffle cone feel in your hand? How does that ice cold treat feel on your tongue? Notice the smoothness of the ice cream compared with the crunchy toppings. When you bring your attention to a single bite using all of your senses, you truly experience that ice cream. Yours is the only “like” that truly matters. (Pro tip: try this mindfulness exercise with more than just food. Run through your senses as you wash your hair, go for a walk, or play with your dog. One caveat: leave out the sense of taste if you’re not eating!)
There you have it, folks! A little self-help to go. I hope you enjoy these quick tips – they are faster-acting than a Redbull. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to Google-map the nearest Sweet Jesus.
**Disclaimer: The advice in this article is for informational purposes only and does not replace the diagnosis/treatment of a licensed medical or mental health professional.**
Lauren Berger is a Registered Social Worker Psychotherapist providing counselling and psychotherapy at IHI. Check her out at www.laurenberger.ca, drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @LaurenBergerMSW, or sneak a peek at her Instagram: laurenberger_msw.