Before I get into the ways I de-stress, I want to tell you a story about what happened when we found out we were expecting Baby Bird. It may not be the story you imagined and I've been quite anxious about sharing it but I hope it helps illustrate how stress and anxiety hit me at the weirdest moments!
Stress happens to even the happiest people
Baby Bird was planned, or rather wished for, hoped for, dreamed of, loved already.
We knew what we were doing. We wanted a baby, a child, a family, a new chapter in our lives. And we were very lucky. It happened naturally and quickly. When I told my partner NewMan that I was pregnant, the news was greeted with the widest smile he is capable of producing (which is remarkably wide; he has a very large mouth) and a few jokes about how the baby would be as hairy as him so I better prepare myself for some serious inner carpet burn (!).
However, my very initial reaction was less smiley.
When I first found out I was pregnant - a few hours before I broke the news to him - I was sat alone in the downstairs toilet of our old apartment staring at a barely-there second line indicating what might be. I remember staring at myself in the mirror, my eyes as wide as the moon and an undeniable fear making my skin sickly pale. My first reaction was to say a certain four letter word multiple times and by the time I'd grown a bit bored of how that word sounded, I let myself cry. A lot. I realised I was in a deep, dark, uncomfortable shock and this made me cry more. I wanted this, didn't I? Yes. So why did I feel so confused, scared and uncertain about everything?!
It was early on a Sunday morning and through the tears I realised I should take some time to get my head round the new information by myself before rushing to tell NewMan what should be happy news, but was about to be relayed to him by an ugly, frightened version of the woman he's trusted to carry his child.
I finally left the toilet, the test in my hand - that second line stronger, bolder by now - and sat down on the sofa in our living room. I took a series of deep breaths. Still the tears came, and the fear, and the anxiety, and a few more of those four letter words. It got to a point where I couldn't breathe properly and that's when I knew I had to stop. So I breathed in deeply and slowly. I closed my eyes and told myself I didn't have to do anything at that moment but calm down. And eventually, that's what I did.
A few hours later, upstairs with NewMan, who was still grinning like the Cheshire Cat on stimulants, I too was smiling. I was smiling so much it hurt. And together we have smiled our way through much of my pregnancy.
However - yes another one - despite wanting this, loving this, enjoying this, I have also experienced an increase in anxiety and unpredictable amounts of nerves. I can blame this on hormones to a point, but also I know well that I'm a very emotional person, and what is happening to my body and my life has meant that I've become more prone to small bouts of stress over the last seven months. I was especially anxious during my first trimester which is why I started to explore yoga, meditation and mindfulness like it was my job.
Maybe I will write more about these explorations in due course, but for now, I want to share five simple things that have helped me more than I would have imagined to quickly reduce a speeding heart beat, to slow a hot rush of perspiration, and to bring me back to a calmer, clearer place to think and act, or to just move past the source of stress (which I've found is more likely to be the necessary course of action!)
So I hope these five quick tips for dealing with a sudden (or not!) bout of stress or anxiety help you too. Anyone can do them and while they may not solve all your problems in five minutes, they will help you feel better.
Five things that will help you de-stress in less than five minutes
For as long as I can remember, "taking a deep breath" has been advice that has been dished out to me (by my wise parents, a teacher, medical staff and also NewMan), but it wasn't until the last year that I actually considered why we are told to breathe deeply when we're panicking, stressing or upset.
If you slow your breathing, you slow you're heart rate. A fast heart rate is one of the most indicative signs of stress and anxiety, so you're effectively nipping one of the biggest symptoms in the bud before it becomes out of control and dangerous. Slow, deep breathing also gets more oxygen to your muscles (they like that!) which will in turn relax them, so your body doesn't feel like coiled spring as much.
One of the best ways to do this actually isn't by taking in a deep breath, it's by letting out a deep breath. A long exhalation activates the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for counteracting or calming the fight or flight nerve system, the sympathetic nervous system, which interestingly enough is activated when you inhale. An active vagus nerve (i.e. a long exhalation) helps you "rest and digest" rather than assemble a load of adrenaline and try to attack the stress or problem causing it. Of course, I didn't know all this off the top of my head, I did quite a bit of research and this article goes into more detail about "vagal tone" if you're interested.
If you extend your exhalation you not only help keep the vagus nerve active, but you also extend the amount of time you "live in a moment" thus slowing down your sense of time and urgency. I don't really have much science to back that last one up; that's just something I've learned through practising deeper breathing.
Before I started going to pregnancy yoga (at the brilliant YogaYatra in Amsterdam) I was already aware of the benefits of stretching. I'd love to say it was from my fictitious previous career as a semi-professional athlete or even from my very real and painful years of running recreationally, but no, actually, it was from watching the neighbourhood cat who considered our old apartment his second home.
The day had long turned sour. I'd gone over the amount of time I'd allocated for a job and still hadn't finished. I had unpaid invoices to chase. The kitchen needed cleaning but I didn't have time to do it, and it had been days since I'd worked on London Eyes, the book I was then editing. The cat was sat to my left, resting on a pillow in the window seat there. After sleeping for an hour or so, he stood up and proceeded to go through a five minute routine of stretching. He arched his back; he pushed out his front paws, one at a time; he jumped down from his seat and before walking away, stretched out his back legs too.
It struck me that if a cat stretches instinctively, and regularly does so, and he doesn't have a physio or a personal trainer nagging at him to do so, then maybe, there really are benefits to stretching regularly. I then remembered how good stretching feels when it's not at the end of a workout or when I feel "I have to". I immediately stood up and stretched out all of my limbs from the tips of my fingers to my toes. It took little more than ten minutes, but I felt like a new person. You don't have to know yoga to stretch; you just need to elongate your limbs to remind your muscles that and let a little more air into your lung
If you're prone to injuries of any sort, I'd recommend getting a professional to advise you on the best way to stretch.
I'm always amazed by how contagious yawning is - apparently, even reading this paragraph will probably want to make you yawn. But little did I know that it also has real benefits, many of which can help you at times of stress or anxiety.
When you yawn you aren't just publicly putting someone's topic of conversation down or telling your partner that you're too tired to do the dishes, you're actually engaging your brain in an important and beneficial activity. The act of yawning - forced or otherwise - activates part of the brain called the "precuneus" which plays an important role in self-reflection. Many neuroscientists believe that yawning is a sort of "restart" for your consciousness of what is going on around you at that time and my yoga teacher always says that yawning in her classes is a real compliment for her as it shows we're relaxed and feeling calm. I've also read that many therapists use yawning as a technique to reduce anxiety and tension, be it physical or emotional. Who knew yawning was so effective at dealing with stress?!
And for the record, I yawned no fewer than eleven times writing that.
4. Put your feet up.
As an 8-month pregnant woman I'm a huge fan of putting my feet up. Heck, I've always been a fan of it.
While the benefits of raising my feet higher than the rest of my body during pregnancy have been explained to me at great length - reduce swelling, improve circulation, rest is good for mother and baby - I didn't expect it to actually feel so good. It may just be me, but the simple act of sitting or lying down and then raising my feet up on a couple of cushions or on a chair if I'm lying on the floor seems to reduce the weight on my body and brain. I suppose much of it has to do with how it improves your blood circulation, which is the same kind of benefit a massage will offer you. NewMan actually swears by having his feet raised at all times when he's working at his desk and there's some evidence to support this. Personally I just look forward to that 30 - 60 minutes at the end of the day when I can raise my feet and yawn my head off... But I have also been known to take a break from a stressful activity and lie on the floor with my legs on my desk chair just to feel a lightness and new perspective return to my overworking mind. (For those of you who need more convincing or direction, these yoga poses that focus on elevating the feet and legs on a wall are supposed to energise as well as reduce stress.)
They say laughter is the best medicine and maybe like the "take a deep breath" advice and that stretch-happy cat, we too quickly overlook exactly why this is the case. I got to researching this too and found this article which explains that laughter actually has "all the reciprocal, or opposite, effects of stress".
Unlike yawning (and there I go again with number twelve!), I don't find it easy to force laughter and reap the benefits, so I would highly recommend having something at hand to get your laughing muscles exercised. I have a handful of YouTube videos favourited, a collection of photos on my phone and a very generous boyfriend who has mastered a very silly dance that always gets me giggling. I admit that this is the hardest one to consider when you're in the midst of an "the end of the world is nigh" anxiety attack or you've had a particularly stressful day, and if you need more than five minutes to watch an episode of your favourite sitcom or to read a chapter from a funny book (or you could try these extracts of my stories that are almost amusing) then do it. You're not skiving or being lazy; you're fighting stress.
Just remember to put your feet up and breathe deeply as you do....
What things do you do to try and keep stress or anxiety at bay? I'd love to find out.
And if you'd like a little more perspective on feeling better about yourself you can read articles on why you should listen to yourself, why you should eat cake first and also a list of things you should never, ever think twice about.
Photos of some pretty purple flowers I spotted in Sarphatipark recently.
Frances M. Thompson
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