The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be a frantic time when we can find ourselves depleted of energy and thrown off our regular routine, which can overwhelm our nervous system.
We may be experiencing a mixture of emotions and sensations that include excitement and anxiety as we are pulled to be part of the festivities around us and compelled to meet our year-end metrics.
For some, the anticipation of time off to rest and recharge may motivate us to find a way to fit it all in as we enter the final stretch of the year. Feeling stress is unavoidable and universal, as we are hard-wired for stress.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “the brain’s response to any demand.”
Stress can be positive if it’s not too intense or prolonged, as it can fuel high performance. However, prolonged stress that is intense often leads to burnout.
Stress that is not managed can affect the executive functioning of our brain, which affects our ability to pay attention, concentrate and solve problems.
Understanding what happens to our bodies when we get stressed, and recognizing that our bodies have more than one way to respond to stress, can help us shift into a more resourceful state.
The following two techniques can help calm and regulate our autonomic nervous system:
Box breathing is a tool that can improve concentration and performance and relieve stress. This tool is used by a range of professionals including Navy SEALs, athletes, law enforcement personnel and medical practitioners. Find a dignified upright posture.
1) Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of a four. As you breathe in, feel the air fill your lungs and abdomen.
2) Hold your breath for a slow count of four.
3) Exhale slowly for a count of four, feeling the breath leaving your lungs and lower abdomen (repeat and continue for two minutes).
Holding your breath allows the carbon dioxide to build in your bloodstream, which activates the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve and stimulates the nervous system during the exhale.
Focus your attention on the area of your heart. Imagine that your breath is flowing in and out through the area of your heart. As you breathe into the heart area, focus on something or someone you really appreciate, and imagine breathing in the feeling of gratitude, breathing deeper and slower than usual through the area of the heart. Continue to breathe in the feeling of gratitude for 30 seconds and notice the difference in your physical sensations.
Changing the heart rhythm calms the autonomic nervous system and helps change the stress-producing attitudes, helping us recharge so that we can be open to enjoying the moment.
It is also important to prioritize and schedule self-care. Sleep helps us refuel our energy. Physical activity helps us recharge by elevating our mood. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, which serves as a natural painkiller and mood enhancer.
Negative thinking can activate the stress response in our bodies. Asking ourselves how we think about stress and what we are stressed by can help us mitigate the effects of stress as we consider our mindset.
Meditation releases endorphins into our bodies and helps increase dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin.
The flood of feel-good chemicals helps calm our autonomic nervous system.
Small steps can make a difference in how we choose to respond to stress. •
Shakeela Begum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Boundless Potential. She is a HeartMath-certified coach and facilitator. Boundless Potential offers workshops and coaching to professionals to cultivate resilience.