What a year this has been so far! 2020 seemed so promising on January 1st but has turned out to be one of many challenges and stressors for most of us.
With the intimate connection our body shares with our mind, stress has a direct effect on both our physical and mental well-being as well as our relationships with others.
These challenges have made it a necessity to prioritize self-care and to develop skills for how we manage stress, process trauma, develop resilience and practice compassion towards ourselves and others. Thankfully, these are skills that we will benefit from even once this pandemic of Coronavirus passes in creating more health and happiness in our lives.
As a Physiotherapist, I now regularly find myself in conversation with clients (and myself) on what plan we have in place to support the stress levels our nervous systems are currently facing. If we are not prepared to plan for this, it is usually our bodies that manifest the results.
In this blog post, I’m sharing three research-supported simple practices to help promote the completion of the stress cycle, develop self-compassion and support a return to relaxation in the body and mind.
1. A 20-second hug
By far, the thing I miss the most this year is regular hugs with friends. Anyone else?
Research supports that a long hug (at least 20 seconds – which is longer than most of us hug for) sends a message to our nervous system of safety, allowing the stress response to settle. (4)
To practice this type of hug:
- Wrap your arms around your partner, friend who is in your bubble or pet.
- Keep your arms around them and count to 20 slowly or until you feel your body starting to relax.
- During the hug, breathe deeply and aim to be fully present with the feeling of the person who is there with you breathing and holding you.
- Try to really feel the sensations in your body during the hug, rather than being with the thoughts in your mind.
Research supports that physical touch and connection, like these long hugs, promote a lowering of blood pressure and heart rate and increase oxytocin, a hormone that supports social-bonding and feelings of safety. (2)
In his new book Resilient, Psychologist and seasoned meditator Rick Hanson states that safety and social connection are two of the basic needs we have as human beings.(1) The health of our nervous system depends on it.
2. A Big Cry
To be honest, a weekly big cry played a huge part in my own stress relief during the lockdown period from mid-March to May this year. As an owner of a relatively young small business, closing our doors was immensely scary. I had a huge amount of fear and adrenaline set in during that period in response to the concerns of how my team and business were going to make it through this period of no income. It felt natural and kind to permit myself this opportunity for release.
As much as we all deal with stress in different ways, crying permits a closure of the stress cycle and allows an emotion to move through us and complete.
In her book and memoir My Stroke of Insight, Neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor noted that the lifespan of an emotion, if we are able to really be with it and feel it, is just 90-seconds. (3)
Unfortunately, our culture more commonly supports avoiding or repressing our emotions through social media or addiction (to a huge list of other things such as alcohol, work, exercise, etc).
Truly being with an emotion and giving ourselves the space to feel it in our body is an act of vulnerability and courage and allows the emotion to move through us, rather than get pushed down to come back up later when the stress response is triggered again.
3. Physical Activity
C’mon…I’m a physiotherapist! You didn’t think I would leave this one out, did you?
With many people still working from home, our levels of physical activity, even just for basic things like walking to the office or going for lunch with colleagues, have dropped drastically.
Regular physical activity, especially when combined with time outside, promotes the release of endorphins and helps to work out some of the tightness that develops from stress and lack of movement in our bodies.
It also forces us to breath more deeply and use the full capacity of our lungs.
Gym still closed? Be creative:
- Take a break from your workday and do some flights of stairs in the stairwell of your apartment building.
- Wake up 30 minutes early and take your dog for an early morning walk when there are less people outside.
- Get a few friends together and hire a personal trainer to take you through a workout in a park where it is easy to socially distance.
- Take up a new sport this winter like cross-country skiing (the ultimate social distancing sport!). Consider signing up for a set of lessons to get some social interaction at the same time. Whistler Olympic Park and Cypress Nordic both offer some great options.
Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s a necessity. If we want to be there for each other and keep our bodies healthy, we need to have a plan to work through some of the stress that is here to stay for the next year.
I hope the above practices are helpful. I have also included a list of references, books and podcasts that some of these came from and that I have found useful in the past months myself.
May you be well.
By Physiotherapist: Katrina Sovio
- Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness. Hanson, Rick (Psychologist), and Forrest Hanson. First edition. New York: Harmony Books, 2018.
- Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Nagoski, Amelia. Nagoski, Emily. New York: Ballatine Books, 2019.
- My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Taylor, Jill Bolte. New York: Penguin, 2006.
- Transforming Sexual Narratives. Iasenza, S. Psychotherapy Networker, 42(1), 24-31. 2016.
- Unlocking Us(Podcast). Brene Brown with Emily and Amelia Nagoski
on Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle.