On World Mental Health Day, I hosted a Jam Session about using natural abilities to manage stress. Here's a recap of some of the suggestions from the session.

Some things to remember

1. Anxiety is not equal to stress. Anxiety is our thinking & emotions. Stress is the physical response. Each is natural, and has been essential to our survival. We face a dangerous situation, fear rises, stress peaks, we experience the "fight, flight, or freeze" response of our sympathetic nervous system. Then the danger passes, and as quickly as anxiety and stress kicked in, it dissipates as our parasympathetic nervous system returns us to a "rest and digest" state of calm. But as most of us know, these days new triggers are causing us to suffer chronic anxiety and stress which suppress our immune systems and makes us less focused and more vulnerable to poor decision making. 

2. Anxiety and stress are a loop – anxious thinking builds stress, the physical sensations of stress such as racing pulse and shallow rapid breathing make us anxious. The good news is that we can break the loop anywhere - by reducing the mental components of anxiety OR by tackling the physical symptoms of stress.

3. You are not alone - NIMH estimates that nearly 20% of us will be diagnosed with a mental health issue. And that is just the tip of the iceberg as many people do not seek help. 

[Related: Conscious Confidence: Shifting from Anxiety to Calm Power]

Firefighting: things you can do to dial back anxiety

Reduce Physical Response by Managing our Breathing. 
Breathe in to a count of 3 and out to a count of 6. Engage the abdomen.

Reduce Mental & Physical Responses Through Meditation. 
Practice when you are NOT stressed or anxious to build the skill!

Reduce Mental Responses By Engaging Reasoning 
Try the 5-1 exercise:

  1. 5 things you can see
  2. 4 things you can hear
  3. 3 things you can touch
  4. 2 things you can smell
  5. 1 thing you can taste

OR

Complete a number sequence – e.g. 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, _ _

And one more way - SMILE!
This can seem counterintuitive, but we smile when we are happy and we are happy when we smile - it is another loop! So, SMILE even when you don’t feel like it! Smile in the mirror several times a day!

Prevention/reduction of anxiety ahead of time

Choosing your perspective for the dayWhen you get up in the morning, do you take time to set your perspective/intent for the day? During our Jam Session 75% of people said they do not. We leave it to chance. That first negative exchange in the office makes us feel anxious and angry, the long line at the coffee stand makes us irritated. But if we plan how we can manage those experiences and choose ahead of time the mindset that we will bring to each occasion, we can have a more positive - and less anxious - day! 

  1. Every day take a couple of minutes to choose your spectacles for the day! Would you like to see the day through rose tinted spectacles or sludge colored ones?
  2. Listen to your self-talk. What are you saying to yourself as you get up, commute to work, enter the building and sit down at your desk? Are you using words like "today is going to be another stressful day. And if the line in the coffee shop is as long as yesterday, I am going to just lose it!" 
  3. Reframe & rephrase unhelpful, negative language to be more optimistic and hopeful. Build up a powerful and positive image of how you will handle your experiences. For example: "I will take the day as it comes and deal with whatever happens. If the coffee shop is busy I will try that new place down the road!"
  4. There is no magic bullet! Things may not go as well as you would like, but you will have more resilience if you don’t start the day in a negative frame of mind!

Visualization
We have all heard about athletes and performers who use visualization to help calm the nerves, and enhance performance. Using a three step process helps a lot.

  1. Outcome visualization – picture crossing the finish line, or visualize something that is going to take place AFTER the stressful activity.
  2. Process visualization – picture each step to achieve your goal. Visualize the challenges and overcoming each challenge.
  3. Action planning - don't just visualize success because there is research that shows we get the same satisfaction from visualizing success as actually accomplishing it! Really visualize the actions you will take to overcome obstacles and succeed.

[Related: 11 Revitalizing Stress-Busters for Working Women]

Visualization with a power pose
For an extra boost, add a power pose to your visualization. Based on work by Amy Cuddy (Presence), we know that when we adopt a power pose before undertaking something challenging, we build confidence and perform better. This particular aspect of positive psychology has been shown TWICE in the series Grey's Anatomy, first in Season 11 Episode 14 and now in Season 14 Episode 4. If it is good enough for them...

  1. Choose poses that open the chest, raise the chin & feel strong. e.g. Superwoman pose. (More ideas are shown in the Jam Session at 34:08)
  2. Take some deep breaths
  3. Visualize your challenging activity. Be specific about the steps you will take and visualize accomplishing each one with confidence and competence

Build Self-esteem - collecting positives rather than gratitudes.
Gratitude journals are very popular and can be very uplifting, but collecting positives can help us to reduce anxiety by recognizing our strengths and building self-confidence.

  1. Make a note of anything you DO, SAY or THINK that it is positive and empowering.
  2. It does not have to be big - it just has to come from you (not happen TO you).
  3. If you find it hard to spot your positives, tell a friend about your day and have them point out what they hear that you DID, SAID, or THOUGHT that is positive.
  4. Partner self-esteem building with self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up about things you don’t do as well as you would like. Perfectionism is the enemy of self-esteem!

A great question at the end of our Jam Session was, "where do I start?" My recommendation is to take ONE of the options suggested and try it out for size for a few days. See if you like it, figure out the best way to integrate your practice into your day, tweak it to make it work for you. Once you have grooved in one new practice and made it a habit, try another! 

Watch Ruth's Jam Session here.

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Ruth Pearce enjoyed a successful career in project management, even though she was a long-time sufferer of a phobia/social anxiety. Having discovered the Thrive Programme, she added anxiety coaching to her project management/coaching practice. In 2018, her book Be A Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths Based Project Management will be published by Berrett Koehler.