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Learn To Regulate Anxiety And Stress With Self-Help

The purpose of this section is to assist you with regulating your stress and anxiety with self-help so that you don’t get burnt out along the journey of therapy or personal growth, as well as to increase your health and a more positive attitude of mind. This is important because a moderate level of stress is both ideal for neuroplasticity, and helps to manage distress when exploring uncomfortable automatic thoughts, feelings, beliefs, sensations, etc.

It is important to learn how to manage stress before delving into uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and the like. This isn’t because you’re not tough or strong – it’s because the mind and brain need a certain physiological balance of stress that is unique for each individual to allow for optimally identifying and changing the subtle unconscious beliefs that one has.

Similarly, one must also be able to counter the basic tendency of the negativity bias and generalizing tendency from subcortical (or unconscious) brain networks before repairing maladaptive implicits beliefs. This is because otherwise the turmoil from the more basic and powerful systems of the lower brain regions get in the way of the effectiveness of the interventions. One’s background mood in so far as that which is the result of bad habits of mind must also be changed before delving into deeper issues because you need a strong and healthy inner psychological environment in order to accomplish this.

If you are even too stressed out to do stress management and self-help for anxiety, and it feels like it wouldn’t be enjoyable to do this, it may be because of the perseverative tendency from the physiological effects of stress. One way around this is to, in a sense, “tap the breaks” to gradually wind the stress response down by making the duration of using the tool very short but frequent. You can slowly increase the duration. For example, you may take mini 5 second breaks using the stress regulation interventions to gradually wind the stress response down. It is important to understand that staying in a responsive mode, which neurochemically fosters empathy and prosociality, should be the goal, and in order to do this one’s stress needs to be managed effectively.

Each person will have different degrees of how much self-soothing they need. Give allowance for the degree to which you and others need positive self-soothing. This should not be used as a means of avoidance, though. Once in a responsive mode you can begin to gradually venture into greater self-actualization and realization for anxiety self-help.

You may also notice that reducing stress can sometimes make the world and reality feel flat and boring, at least initially. The reason for this is because stress creates alertness, focus, and drive, as well as stimulation. The manner in which to overcome this challenge is to also come off your ‘stress bender’ gradually. Think of it like acclimatizing your body to a new environment. It takes time for this to happen, and it is on the body’s terms. It will take as long as it takes, and you need to foster the conditions for it to change. This idea contrasts with many people’s tendency to try to force change. A paradigm shift needs to take place in you such that the conditions need to be fostered, which is an indirect approach. This is in contrast trying to directly or mechanically change.

Breathe

Slowly and comfortably breathe in at a pace that is enjoyable for you. Make it rhythmic because this calms the brainstem, which is the first step in therapeutic repair as all else depends on the regulation of this region of the brain. If it helps to, count out the length of your breaths. Breathe in one-two-three-four, hold for two seconds. Breathe out, one-two-three-four, and hold for two seconds. Continue this for however long it is enjoyable. Notice any enjoyable sensations or effects in your body from doing this. This helps to reinforce the desire and habit to engage in this exercise.

Exercise:

  1. Slowly and comfortably breathe in at a pace that is enjoyable for you. Make it rhythmic because this calms the brainstem, which is the first step in therapeutic repair as all else depends on the regulation of this region of the brain.
  2. If it helps to, count out the length of your breaths.
  3. Breathe in one-two-three-four, hold for two seconds. Breathe out, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.
  4. Notice any enjoyable sensations or effects in your body from doing this. This helps to reinforce the desire and habit to engage in this exercise.
  5. Continue this for however long it is enjoyable. You can start with a few cycles of breaths and work up to 5 minutes or more.
  6. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Slow

This tool involves slowing your breathing and movement down to provide an anchor for setting the pace of, and regulating, your mind. During your daily life when you are experiencing maladaptive stress, slow down your movement, shifting of attention, and what you consciously think about.

Exercise:

  1. Slow your breathing and movement down more than usual.
  2. Notice if your slower breathing feels good in your body. Linger on any enjoyable sensations in your body for 10 seconds.
  3. Slow your movement down to a pace that is comfortable. Notice if the slower movement feels good in your body. Linger on any enjoyable sensations in your body for 10 seconds.
  4. Be aware of this as you are doing it for 10 seconds.
  5. Notice if your slower movement feels good in your body.
  6. Notice any enjoyable sensations from this slower movement in your body for 10 seconds.
  7. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Relax

There has been much research on the benefits of relaxation exercises on mental and physical health. There are a myriad of ways to approach this, and core exercises are provided at the end of this chapter.

Exercise:

  1. Get comfortable where you are sitting, standing, moving, or lying down.
  2. Gently become aware of your body and stay with this embodied awareness throughout the exercise.
  3. Move or shift your body to get comfortable.
  4. Slow your breathing down.
  5. Breathe in a little deeper than usual making sure it’s comfortable for you.
  6. Breathe out a bit longer than you normally do in a way that feels pleasant for you. Make your breathing smooth, even, and rhythmic.
  7. Scan your body and notice where you feel tension. Sequentially and slowly move each tense part of your body slowly being aware of the movement as it’s happening. This can be subtle (if moving) or more pronounced if stationary.
  8. When you exhale as you are moving this part of the body, gently and gradually allow this part of your body to start to release and let go.
  9. Notice any enjoyable sensations when you exhale and gently allow the muscle to start to let go a little.
  10. Allow yourself to experience the sensations as these are occurring in your body. If you are not aware of any at all, imagine the feeling and sensation of what a little bit of relaxation might feel like in the whole of your body. Just gently imagine the felt sense of this in your body.
  11. Now, savour any enjoyable sensations there are for about 10 seconds at the same time you are gently aware of your body.
  12. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Eye Movement

Eye movement has been found to both aid in eliciting a relaxation response, process thought and emotion, and problem-solve. For the purpose of this section we will focus on fostering greater relaxation.

Exercise:

  1. Gently and lightly become aware of your body.
  2. Breath slowly and relaxingly taking your time breathing in and out.
  3. Close your eyes. Notice any tension you feel in and around your eyes.
  4. Begin moving your eyes in slow, relaxed motion in a direction that might feel good. Monitor and alter the movement so it does feel good for you.
  5. You can move them in any combination and direction: up, down, side, diagonal, and around. These can be big, small, or medium movements, or a mix.
  6. The pace can be fast, slow, medium, or a mix.
  7. The rhythm can change too. Make it so it feels good for you in each moment.
  8. You may notice thoughts and feelings arise as you do this. As they do, continue doing the eye movement exercise while experiencing the thought or feeling, but do not consciously try to linger on the thought or feeling.
  9. If your mind wanders, wait a moment or two until you feel ready and gradually and slowly turn your attention back to being in your body, breathing slowly and rhythmically, and slowly moving your eyes.
  10. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Directed Associations

If you find certain thoughts or events stressful you can use the features of the present thought or experience to your advantage. The core of cognition seems to be analogy. That is, any feature of our reality (mental or physical) either is or has a reference point for another feature in our mind (reflected in our neural network). These are, in turn, connected with additional features and cues, and so on. Here are a couple ways of directing associations.

The first way is simply becoming aware of the opposite of the distressing feature. The second way is by looking for features that in some way can be connected with your wants, goals, and values. For the first way, this involves becoming aware of one of the features – the first is most often helpful. Then become aware of what this feature reminds you of when you think of it. Pretend for a moment that you have a thought about someone you don’t like. What is the first thought or feeling that comes to mind about them? Maybe you felt that they were inconsiderate. Now, think of the opposite of that quality and who exhibits consideration to you. This uses the natural rhythms of your associative thinking to think more positively by looking at the opposite of that feature.

For the second method involving considering your wants, values, and goals we can use a very mundane example. For example, you are not a fan of the vegetable cauliflower. If you just continue dwelling on this you remain stuck and in an unpleasant state of mind. When you use directed associative thinking, you can become aware of what the cauliflower reminds you of. For me, I think of cheese (probably from the commercials when I was younger). Then I think of what cheese reminds me of that is further and more significantly connected with my wants, values, and goals. I think of cows, then a farm, and then the countryside, and finally how I would like to retire in the countryside.

You can think of this method as piggybacking on the associative waves of your neural network’s pattern of energy and activity. In other words, it is essentially harnessing the natural direction and rhythm of your brain’s neural activity.

Try to do all of this lightly because focusing and narrowing in on the thought too much activates the left hemisphere and blocks out the pattern recognition power of the right hemisphere. However, we also need some of the focusing power of the left hemisphere to guide the right’s associative elicitations.

Mini-Breaks

It can be sometimes difficult to manage stress and anxiety with self-help because when we feel too stressed or angry to want to relax. This is because during stress we tend to get perseverative, more alert, and so managing stress is more about learning how to gradually wind down. This practice can be done often and give momentary relief. Done frequently, the relaxation and relief accumulates.

Exercise:

  1. Become aware of any tension in your body. Common regions are the upper back and shoulders, jaw, eyes, and stomach.
  2. Take 5 seconds to slowly breathe in.
  3. As you slowly exhale allow your muscles to gradually relax more and more while you exhale and make a gentle and relaxed intention to clear your mind and focus on the momentary relaxation for 5 seconds.
  4. You can do more breath cycles using this technique if you like.
  5. Most people find they can completely let go for about 5 seconds before the automatic thoughts and feelings start up again. This depends on your level of stress at the time, though.
  6. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Massage

Massage – even providing it to oneself – can be a terrific way to help provide regulation and sensory integration to fundamental levels of the architecture of your brain. Massage is often underestimated because of its perceived simplicity and accessibility, but in terms of regulation, it is fantastic.

Exercise:

  1. Begin by noticing any tension you feel in your body. Scan your body from head to toe. Common areas of tension that people seek massage for are the upper back and shoulders, face and jaw.
  2. Take a slow deep breath and slowly exhale. Continue breathing deeply and rhythmically in a relaxed and slow manner.
  3. Slowly begin to massage your own upper shoulders near the base of your neck. Do this in a rhythmic manner as you continue to breathe.
  4. Become aware of any enjoyable sensations as you do this.
  5. Be present in the massage and motion as it is happening in the ever-flowing fluid moment.
  6. Continue in this way for other areas of your body that would feel enjoyable, such as the face, stomach, etc.
  7. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Emotional Boundaries

Being aware of one’s emotional boundaries of what is uncomfortable and overwhelming and creating distance or time from the stressor to process and contextualize fears can be a useful way to achieve greater regulation. If you are not aware of when this happens it may be especially helpful to learn how to identify your emotional boundaries so that you can begin this practice.

Exercise:

  1. Take a slow deep breath and slowly exhale. Continue breathing deeply and rhythmically in a relaxed and slow manner.
  2. Notice any tension and sensations you feel in your body.
  3. Be mindful of what feels comfortable and uncomfortable as you interact with your environment.
  4. Allow any automatic thoughts, feelings, and impressions to arise.
  5. When you get a sense of what feels manageable and overwhelming, consider ways you could control your action (mind or body) when interacting with your environment to create a healthy level of challenge – one that is not overwhelming that works for you.
  6. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Physical Distance from Stressor

This is also an underestimated tactic to increase regulation. There are many instances when this is indeed possible, yet we either downplay the significance of it, or have an erroneous notion that we should be able to use a technique to instantly regulate our distress. Regulation does not seem to work instantaneously. It requires a little bit of time, distance, and other interventions to get the wheels turning for regulation to begin to set-in. Getting some physical distance can assist with beginning the process of regulation

Exercise:

  1. Take a slow deep breath and slowly exhale. Continue breathing deeply and rhythmically in a relaxed and slow manner.
  2. Become aware of any stressor that feels a bit too overwhelming. Consider how you could get even a bit of distance from the stressor – even if it is 2 minutes, for example.
  3. This can provide the necessary space to reduce the probability of reacting rather than acting on the stressor.
  4. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Constructive Exploration & Engagement of Impulses 

Sometimes exploring and enacting impulses in a safe and controlled manner can provide some regulation. Do this in a controlled exploratory manner in the safety of isolation so as to not potentially scare or harm someone.

Exercise:

  1. Become aware of your body, and begin moving your body and noticing if it feels as a positive or negative value in terms of how close it feels to resonating with what your impulse is.
  2. Be aware of what images, feelings, thoughts that come up and really try to search for the underlying need related to safety, satisfaction, connection, or even meaning.
  3. We don’t want to sit in or enact an impulse based on surface level feeling (i.e., secondary or instrumental emotion). Look for underlying needs and hypothesize what might be below the surface of your emotion.
  4. If the impulse is unpalatable, sublimate it by enacting an impulse that is more constructive but still in the domain of that impulse. For example, if you are angry at your spouse, enact constructively expressing but being aware of the core emotion of anger and your resolve and assertiveness to help provide relief.
  5. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

Positive Influencers

It can be adaptive to direct your attention to positive things if it provides a break from stress. Not all stress is bad, of course, but we seem to have too much. Too much can be bad for health as levels of stress hormones called glucocorticoids can depress virtually every system of the body and increase the risk for illness and wear and tear on the body. There is definitely a time and place for investigating and dealing with unpleasant fears and worries, but a break from these is also essential for regulating your energy and maintaining your mental health.

You can do this exercise for a quick buffer for stress that lasts a few seconds, if you don’t have a longer period. Or, you can do a more lengthy exercise if you have the time or desire. Sometimes it can be challenging to do an exercise like this for an extended period because it feels like work. This is why it is important to try it for a short time and notice, experience, and savour any enjoyable sensations in your body for several seconds. This acts as a reinforcer to increase the desire for more of it.

 

Exercise:

Make a list of your favourite calming memories, images, smells, sounds, feelings, fantasies, movies, books, people, qualities, and characteristics both as a child and adult. These will be buffers against negative things you perceive that cause too much stress. Here is a list of categories to aid you:

  • People
  • Places
  • Activities
  • Entertainment
  • Movies
  • Books
  • Sports
  • Strengths
  • Food
  • Scents
  • Sounds
  • Music
  • Images
  • Animals
  • Nature & Weather
  • Memories

Daily Routine

There are some core regulation exercises you can use as daily practices which are provided below. You can begin by doing one per day, and gradually increasing the number. You can also make these an integrated exercise as a daily routine. The more frequently these are done the greater that this builds the stress regulation circuits in the brain which provide a buffer to stressors, and the easier it is to get into a more relaxed state of mind.

Breathing & Embodied Awareness

  1. This exercise can be either stationary or in-motion. Get comfortable where you are sitting, standing, or lying down. You may add slow, rhythmic movement such as walking, tai chi, yoga, or freestyle movement if you are feeling restless.
  2. Gently become aware of your body and stay with this embodied awareness throughout the exercise.
  3. Move or shift your body to get comfortable.
  4. Slow your breathing down. Breathe in a little deeper than usual making sure it’s comfortable for you. Breathe out a bit longer than you normally do in a way that feels pleasant for you.
  5. Make your breathing smooth, even, and rhythmic.
  6. Continue breathing this way for the entire exercise.
  7. Be aware of the relief and relief intrinsic in exhaling. Become aware of the feeling or sensation of replenishment intrinsic in inhaling.
  8. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Scan your body and notice where you feel tension.
  2. Sequentially slowly move each tense part of your body slowly being aware of the movement as it’s happening.
  3. When you exhale as you are moving this part of the body, gently and gradually allow this part of your body to start to release and let go.
  4. Notice any enjoyable sensations when you exhale and gently allow the muscle to start to let go a little. Allow yourself to experience the sensations as these are occurring in your body.
  5. If you are not aware of any at all, imagine the feeling and sensation of what a little bit of relaxation might feel like in the whole of your body.
  6. Just gently imagine the felt sense of this in your body.
  7. Now, savour any enjoyable sensations there are for about 10 seconds at the same time you are gently aware of your body.
  8. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

 

Calm Place

  1. Think of or recall a place – real or imaginary – where you feel safe, protected, calm, clear, and content.
  2. Notice what you see in this place specifically.
  3. What do you smell?
  4. What do you hear?
  5. What tactile senses are you noticing?
  6. Stay with and linger on each of these experiences for 20 seconds as you are aware of your body.
  7. Notice any enjoyable sensations of calm and relaxation for each – even if a little – and stay with this for 20 seconds each.
  8. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.

 

Sensory Mindfulness

  1. Choose something to look at that is enjoyable where you are.
    1. Be aware of what you are looking at for 10 seconds as you are experiencing looking at it in the flowing present moment of experience. Be aware of your body as a whole as you are doing this.
    2. Notice the pleasure that is intrinsic in tapping into direct physical sensorial experience. Stay with and savour this experience for 10 seconds.
  2. Become aware of sounds that you hear around you. Choose one that is relatively calming.
    1. Stay with what you are hearing for 10 seconds as you are experiencing hearing it in the flowing present moment of experience. Be aware of your body as a whole as you are doing this.
    2. Notice the pleasure that is intrinsic in tapping into direct physical sensorial experience. Stay with and savour this experience for 10 seconds.
  3. Become aware of any scents where you are.
    1. Be aware of the scent as you are experiencing it in the everflowing present moment of experience. Be aware of your body as a whole as you do this.
    2. Notice the pleasure that is intrinsic in tapping into this direct physical sensorial experience. Stay with and savour this experience for 10 seconds.
  4. Notice any tactile sensations you are already experiencing or you can pick something up to engage your tactile sense.
    1. Be aware of the tactile sensations as you are experiencing it in the everflowing present moment. Be aware of your body as a whole as you do this.
  5. Notice the pleasure that is intrinsic in tapping into this direct physical sensorial experience. Stay with and savour this experience for 10 seconds.
  6. Gently become aware of your body as a whole again and stay with this embodied awareness for 10 seconds
  7. Move or shift your body to get comfortable.
  8. Take a slow deep breath and exhale slowly.
  9. Well done. You may wish to pause or take a break before embarking on the next exercise, or you may choose to continue on throughout your day now. Best wishes until the next exercise.