Audio Version (10:26)
In today’s fast-paced world, stress and anxiety have become all too familiar for many of us. Whether it’s work pressures, societal expectations, or personal challenges, managing these emotions is crucial for maintaining mental and emotional health and well-being.
As the festive holiday season is in full swing, and for many, it can be incredibly stressful, I wanted to share two of my most simple, quick-acting tools for managing stress and feelings of overwhelm.
Both strategies will bring your nervous system back to homeostasis (baseline) after you’ve triggered your fight, flight, freeze stress response.
To watch the extended YouTube version of this article, click here.
Before we begin, I’ve previously done videos on our nervous system and the flight, fight, freeze stress response, including why it can be challenging to think straight when we’re triggered. So, if you haven’t seen those, click here to watch the entire playlist. They’ll help give you some valuable background I don’t have time to go into here.
1. Physical Exercise & Movement
When our stress response is triggered, a hefty dose of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are released instantly into our bloodstream.
These biochemicals are designed to give us a 15-minute short burst of strength and energy to get us away from the physical threat, in other words, the sabre-toothed tiger! It’s important to note that our brains can’t tell the difference between a physical threat and a perceived one such as when we panic, worry, or overthink.
However, when the stress response is trigged, we’re often just sitting down, and we don’t move. So, instead of those stress feelings abating, which they would naturally do with movement (running, kicking, punching – fight or flight), they don’t because we aren’t using them up for what they were intended for!
So, it stands to reason that regular physical activity, which doesn’t have to mean running a marathon or flogging it out in the gym for hours, is massively beneficial for both our physical and mental health as it significantly reduces those stress hormones.
The 15-minute Walk
We all know that walking is good for us, but many don’t realise just how beneficial it is. So let me give you a quick overview of the benefits of walking for just 15 minutes (not 10,000 steps, which is the popular number we’ve all heard of – that’s 4 miles and will typically take an hour and a half, depending on how quickly you walk.)
Just fifteen minutes of walking outside (not on a treadmill) are proven to have significant positive biological and psychological effects (Source: Andrew Huberman, who is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University. He has a fantastic podcast – the hubermanlab podcast).
In just 15 minutes of brisk walking, you burn off the adrenaline and cortisol triggered by the fight/flight/freeze response.
It forces the release of ‘happy hormones’, including dopamine (the reward chemical), endorphins (the pain killer and natural stress reliever), and oxytocin (the love hormone that’s responsible for giving us feelings of safety) if you walk with someone else or your dog.
Daylight regulates your serotonin production, which controls your sleep/wake cycle. If you aren’t getting enough light into the back of your eyes, you’re likely experiencing disturbed sleep and an inability to concentrate during the day.
Moving forward outside widens our view and reduces any feelings of overwhelm. When we trigger our stress response, our view narrows. It’s our brain’s way of trying to focus us on the one big thing it perceives as the main threat to our survival. In other words, the sabre-toothed tiger!
The problem is that today, there is rarely only one thing that we worry about, so this natural ‘narrowing’ effect is counterproductive, often leading to feelings of overwhelm.
However, when we walk outside, our view automatically widens (another throwback to our early ancestors) so that we can spot threats coming from all around us.
Listening to something stimulating, e.g. a podcast or audiobook, is proven to enhance the positive effects of walking.
Walking also clears your head and enables you to think more rationally. It helps bring the pre-frontal cortex back online.
(N.B., we also get the same positive effects from running and cycling outside.)
I teach this in all of my corporate well-being courses. I suggest putting a 15-minute walk in your diary as you would any other important meeting because it IS that important. Many clients will tell me, ‘I don’t have time for that!’ My reply, ‘You don’t have time NOT to, especially if you’re feeling stressed!’
If you do the 15-minute walk, especially when you’re feeling triggered/activated, you will be better able to deal with the issue when you return to the office or home for all the reasons I’ve mentioned abov
Deep breathing exercises are another quick, simple, yet powerful tool to counter the stress response. When stressed, our breathing tends to become shallow and rapid, contributing to heightened anxiety.
Techniques such as the physiological sigh are clinically proven to quickly reduce the effects of a triggered stress response, regulating the nervous system and inducing relaxation.
The Physiological Sigh
Sometimes, we can’t simply put our shoes on and go for a walk. That’s where the ‘Physiological Sigh’ is extremely useful. It is a clinically proven method that automatically calms the nervous system when we feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. It triggers the activation of the phrenic nerve to the diaphragm and causes our lungs to bring in more significant amounts of oxygen.
This is another brilliant tool that Andrew Huberman talks about frequently in his social media and podcasts.
We automatically do this when we cry and try to talk simultaneously; we also do it during sleep (dogs do it when they settle down to nap!). The ‘sigh’ re-inflates the tiny sacs in the lungs called the ‘alveoli’, which balance the carbon dioxide and oxygen in the bloodstream and lungs.
It’s effortless to do, and you can do it anywhere:
Take two inhales through the nose (until your lungs fully expand)
Release the air through one LONG breath out through the mouth
Repeat two/three times, and you should significantly reduce your stress levels.
Stress and anxiety are inevitable parts of life, and unfortunately, during times such as Christmas and the festive season, those feelings can worsen.
These two tools are clinically proven to alleviate short-term stress, which will also help in the long term by significantly lowering stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
However, these things don’t work if you don’t use them! Neither the walk nor the physiological sigh is complicated. The hardest part is remembering to do them!
So, as I mentioned earlier, put the walk in your diary as you would any other important meeting because it is that important! It may help to leave notes around or put alerts on your phone to remind yourself to do the breathing exercise.
By integrating these practical tools into your daily routine, you can effectively manage stressful emotions and build resilience.
I’m a big believer in adding small things to your daily routine that make a significant impact. If you try to introduce big things, your nervous system will see them as a threat and end up self-sabotaging. It’s little things done consistently that make the most significant difference.
With dedication and practice, these tools, plus the ones I’ll explain in the next article and video, can become invaluable assets in your journey towards a more balanced and peaceful life.
Although the festive season is a wonderful time of year for many people, for many others, it isn’t, and I think it’s important to recognise that.
If you’re struggling this year, please reach out. If you don’t feel you can talk to friends or family members, I will always make myself available to people in need. You are not alone.
If you’re having trouble setting boundaries with your family during the festive period, which I know can be a problem for many of us, I have a video on that, too, which you can watch here.
If you do head over to YouTube, please like, comment, subscribe, and hit that notification bell so you don’t miss a thing. If you haven’t subscribed to my LinkedIn newsletter yet, click the ‘Subscribe’ button at the top of the page.
Finally, thank you for your continued support and Merry Christmas!