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Helena Önneby

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Give More Focus On Your Recuperation Than You Give Your Stress

We live in a society (which we have created together) where everything should go fast. We are often in a hurry here and there and the so-called life puzzle never really fits. Perhaps this year has meant a change for some, with less commuting and social obligations. But that does not necessarily mean that the stress has decreased.

Stress is more often created in our internal world than in the external one. It is not always that the stress that comes from the fact that we need to run to the bus or hurry to the meeting, but mostly the stress is created in our thoughts. Concerns about what the future will be. Stressful thoughts about how we should catch up with everything. The feeling of lack of control in our own lives. This means that the stress response can be fully switched on even at home on the couch when we are not really in a hurry anywhere. Which then means that for some, stress has actually increased this year, even though some groups in society have fewer commitments in the calendar.

But many of us today are aware that stress is not really dangerous. Our nervous system is regulated from peace and quiet (parasympathetic nervous system) to fight and flight (sympathetic nervous system) and it has helped us survive through the millennia. The sympathetic nervous system has kicked in when we had to fight for our survival and the parasympathetic nervous system has taken over when the danger is over and we can recover.

The challenge in today’s society is that it is the worrying thoughts of an elderly relative, the difficult conflict with a colleague or the lack of control over the US presidential election that activates stress (the sympathetic nervous system) and not a tiger that threatens to eat us here and now. So, stress has become a part of our daily lives, including evenings and weekends and some even call it chronic.

But just as we are wise to focus more on what works in our lives than what does not work, so we are also wise to focus more on recovery than on stress. Because we can handle stress, as long as we get recuperation. But if we’re constantly in the sympathetic nervous system, or the gas, the system will eventually start to creak.

And the most important recovery is not at all about that spa weekend with the girlfriends in three months or about that extra holiday you will take once the big job project is over. The most important recovery is the one that is happening today, in the small things. No matter what your life situation looks like and how much you have on the agenda, there is room for recuperation, if you just decide that you want to prioritize it.

It can be taking three deep breaths at the coffee machine or when you go to the bathroom. (Deep breaths where the stomach expands when you inhale and collapses when you exhale and the shoulders and jaws relax.) Choosing a nice sound on the alarm clock so that the body does not have to be awakened by an alarm going off (who does not get a little stressed of going from deep sleep to a sharp alarm sounding?). To ask for or give yourself some calm foot or head massage. To meditate 5 minutes in the morning or in the car after leaving the children at daycare. Choosing to take off your shoes and go barefoot for a while after work. To put on a calm and flowing song and let the body move as it pleases (just like that; dance like no one is watching). To dim the lights in the evening and maybe light some candles.

There are a thousand opportunities for recovery in our everyday lives if we choose to see them. But we also need to have some distance to our thoughts so that they don’t continue racing  and convince the system that you’re in a life threatening even when the cozy lighting is on and the tea is hot. The trick is to allow yourself to be fully present in the moment and not in the thought. Meditation is a great way to practice that ability, to first and foremost become aware that we are not our thoughts, and then be able to choose not to tag along with them all the time.

If you notice that you have difficulty getting calm, unwinding and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, I recommend that you ask for help. Maybe you have a friend who can help you or you need professional support to deal with troubling thoughts or overwhelming emotions. I am happy to help if I can. But some have severe trauma or programming that makes it feel insecure to unwind. Then it is important to get support from someone who has experience of just that and who works holistically, who can support both body, soul, thoughts and emotions.

So, the next time you notice that the stress response has started, pause, put your left hand on your heart and your right hand on your stomach and breathe calmly until you notice that the system relaxes. I promise, you can prioritize it, and yes, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself and the people around you.

Find Helena Önneby’s three simple breathing exercises here.

This is a guest post. Any opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

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