With all the challenges and uncertainty we are currently experiencing, it is easy to become overwhelmed and experience high degrees of stress.
As we discussed in part one of this series, we need to recognize that in all the challenges we face in life, we can always choose how we wish to respond. While there are many things we simply cannot control, we do have the capacity to choose how we act versus react to life.
Toward this end, I have compiled a number of strategies that can be used to mindfully manage stress during these times. Not all of these are best for everyone.
Exercise Mindful Presence. Everyone is experiencing some degree of stress due to the uncertainty of these times.
This may be expressed in many different and potentially unproductive ways. We need to be able to listen compassionately as someone expresses challenging emotions and not become engaged with the emotions rather than the person. This means we all need to take the time to become centered and grounded (such as strategies in this article) so that we are better able to be present for others.
I am reminded of the poem by Rachel Stafford which reads, in part, I know someone going through a hard time and I will not make it harder by making it about me. This means that we need to see below the presenting emotions and understand that the person may be scared, anxious, angry, etc. and we need to be present for the person, and not react to the emotions he or she is expressing. This is particularly true for children who are still developing their emotional regulation strategies.
Gratitude. A hallmark of stress management, and positive psychology, gratitude practices have been shown to have beneficial effects on our health. Make a regular practice of listing things for which you are grateful. This may be a challenge, but it is exactly that challenge which makes this so important. It is far too easy to slide into fear, anger, blame and injustice – all of which increase our anxiety and stress responses.
Making the choice to note those things in our lives for which we are grateful is critical. The research suggests that this practice is most effective if done two to three times per week, rather than daily. However, it might be that an initial daily dose is needed to jump start your practice.
Daily Difference Initiative. A number of years ago I attended a Positive Psychology Conference in which an individual was doing a study on people’s responses to the question many of us receive upon arriving home from school or work: How was your day, dear? He found that responses tended to fall into one of four categories.
The first was, I survived! We’ve all had those days when we were grateful to have simply gotten through the day unscathed.
The second was, I was busy. While less stressful than the first, these days often feel as though we were being pulled from one thing to the next and leave us feeling as though we didn’t accomplish everything we wanted. The third was, I was productive. Better than the previous responses in that we were able to get done the things we wanted – we completed our To Do List!
These three were by far the most common responses; however, it was the fourth category that was the most revealing, and the most beneficial to respondents: I made a difference! Not only were these individuals happier and less stressed, but the researcher found that these respondents operated from a different initial orientation. In the first three categories, individuals were at the mercy of the day and its circumstances. Whereas those in this last group set an intention every day, in the morning to make a difference in someone’s life — even if it was only in a small way.
By setting an intention to make a difference, they were looking for opportunities and chances to help others. Further, at the end of the day, they reflected on where they had been effective, and how they might do so again. So, in these challenging and uncertain times, engage in the Daily Difference Initiative by setting the intention each morning that you will find some way to make a difference in someone’s life. The following two suggestions are a way to jump start a Daily Difference.
Reach Out. Currently, I work with the Central Minnesota Council on Aging as the Healthy Aging Coordinator. As services are closing down and we have fewer opportunities to connect in person, we worry that many of our elderly are going to experience significant increases in isolation and loneliness. Reaching out and checking in is one way we can make a daily difference in the lives of others. Of course, we always want to be mindful of doing so in a safe manner.
Beat the Spread. We can spread kindness at a rate faster than that of the virus. Find ways to continue to do small acts of kindness to neighbors, family, friends and others. There was a recent post that showed a group of youngsters playing as a quartet on the porch of person who is alone and self-isolating. I received a message yesterday from someone who is currently not able to attend school, offering his time in whatever ways he could to those who might need help. An amazing resource for activities to spread kindness is the Bounce Back Project from Buffalo. On the website you will find a wealth of ideas for daily kindness activities as well as information on resilience. There are sections for both adults and children.
Maintain Healthy Lifestyle Practices. It is easy, during times of stress, to forget to maintain a healthy lifestyle. These include finding the time to get regular exercise.
The research is clear that if there is one thing you can do for yourself to manage stress it is to exercise. This may be a challenge now as gyms and other sites are temporarily closed, but it can also be an opportunity to find other means to move. A healthy diet can also be a challenge during times of stress. Eating can be soothing and enjoyable, but it can also lead to excess and using food to self-soothe. We don’t want to “eat our stress.”
Be mindful of the foods you eat, and use this time to focus on healthy eating habits. That doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy some foods — dark chocolate is supposed to be good for you! Just don’t overindulge. Sleep is also critical for stress management. It is easy at these times to get out of the sleeping habits we normally use. Good sleep hygiene is effective in managing stress.
Steven Hoover retired after 29 years from St. Cloud State University as an emeritus professor. He served as a professor in the Community Psychology, Counseling and Family Therapy Department. Hoover directed the SCSU Employee Mediation Program and as interim associate provost for Faculty and Student Affairs, interim dean of the School of Education and interim director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. He teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, serves on the St. Cloud ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Collaborative and presents often on trauma-informed practices. He has a Wellness Coaching Certificate from the Mayo Clinic and consults with schools and businesses on stress management and life balance.