5 Simple Practices to Help You Manage Stress & Anxiety

“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.”

–Etty Hillesum

After more than a year of balancing work, family and school all from the confines of our homes, it’s to be expected that people are feeling more anxious and stressed than usual. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “during the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.”

If you’re feeling unusually overwhelmed lately, here are five simple practices to incorporate into your day to help you manage stress and anxiety.

Vagus Nerve Breathing

The vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees many bodily functions, including mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. The vagus nerve plays a huge role in anxiety as it also transmits signals of nervousness or calm, anger or relaxation. When we are subjected to real or perceived stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic nervous system controls the well known fight or flight response. Anxiety is about flight, which is fear based. “I need to get away right now.” At the mild end, anxiety may be experienced as a mild nervousness or vague fear, maybe  restlessness. At the other end of the spectrum is the dreaded panic attack. A panic attack feels like we are going to die, and we need to escape. We want to somehow jump out of our own bodies, and we can’t. This situation is terrifying. However, the good news is that there is an unbelievably simple technique to trigger a relaxation response in the Vagus Nerve and help fight anxiety. 

This simple breathing practice activates the Vagus Nerve, creating a relaxation response in your body. 

1. Find a comfortable, upright seated or standing posture.
2. Inhale slowly through your nose for 3 counts.
3. Exhale gently for 6 counts through your mouth.
4. Repeat for 3 minutes (20 rounds of 3-6 = 3 minutes), focusing on slow, deep breaths.

Feel free to adjust the timing, inhaling for 2 counts and out for 4 or 4 counts and out for 8, finding what feels good. The essential thing is that the exhale time should be at least double the inhale time.

For something so simple, it’s amazing how effective this practice can be. You can also follow along with a guided version of this practice in this podcast.

The Simple Shrug

When we are stressed, constrictions and blockages occur in our body that can negatively effect any or all of our vital systems.  Have you ever been stuck in traffic and noticed that your shoulders were creeping up to your ears and you were gripping the steering wheel for dear life? If so, you know what it feels like when your body reacts to stress. According to Dr. Nicole Byers, a clinical neuropsychologist in Alberta, “when our bodies react with tension, this signals our brains there is a reason to be stressed, which keeps our minds racing with worry and puts our brains on high alert.” 

A great way to tune into your body and release tension is through a simple shrug:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Focus on the muscles in your shoulders and neck, where many of us hold stress. Notice how they feel.
  3. Tighten your shoulders and lift them up to your ears, bringing them as close to them as possible.
  4. Hold this position and count to five. As you count, notice the feeling in your shoulders. 
  5. Let the tension go with a sigh and drop your shoulders as low as you can. Notice how different your shoulders feel.
  6. Repeat this a few times.

This simple shrug is the foundation of a progressive muscle relaxation practice. This technique is a wonderful way to slow down excessive thinking and rumination, and creates awareness of your body in a new way, encouraging you to notice what it feels like to be tense vs. relaxed in the present moment. 

Body Scan

“A lot of tension is caught up in our muscles. We clench our jaws or feel tense in our lower back, upper shoulders. This practice brings gentle awareness to those areas.”

– Dr. Afrosa Ahmed, a medical doctor and mindfulness coach in the UK

The first step toward relaxation is awareness of constrictions in the body, and a great way to bring awareness to the body is through a body scan practice. Try the introductory practice below, guided by CEO, Rick Breden, and practice noticing sensations in the body. 

5-4-3-2-1 Sensory Grounding

You can also cultivate positivity, peace and relaxation by mindfully tuning into your senses throughout the day. By taking advantage of the sensations that are available to you in every moment, you draw your mind away from dwelling on the past and worrying about the future and connect to your body in the present.

“This exercise helps people get out of their heads and into their environment by focusing on their five senses,” she explains. “It also taps into our parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system.”

-Grace Dowd

To tune into this present moment awareness,  Grace Dowd, a licensed psychotherapist based in Texas, recommends this practice:

  1. Take a few deep breaths and settle into your body.
  2. Name five things you can see.
  3. Four things you can touch.
  4. Three things you can hear.
  5. Two things you can smell.
  6. One thing you can taste.
  7. Continue breathing deeply.
  8. Repeat as necessary.

Thought Clouds

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Have you ever just layed down in the grass and watched the clouds slowly float by? It’s one of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling stressed or anxious and clouds are a wonderful reminder of the constantly changing nature of our world and minds.

This practice is similar to watching clouds but instead you’re observing your thoughts as if they were clouds. According to Dr. Lillian Nejad, “By observing your thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky you can learn something about the nature of your mind: that your thoughts come and go (if you let them), that you don’t have to react to them, or believe them, or judge them, or get caught up with them. You can just notice them and let them drift by. ”

  1. Find a comfortable seated position.
  2. Close your eyes or bring your gaze down past your nose at a fixed point.
  3. Begin by taking a few deep breaths, noticing the breath enter and leave your body with each inhale and exhale.
  4. Now, begin to notice your thoughts as they enter your mind.
  5. Observe your thoughts as though they were clouds in the sky. Jennifer Hamady, a therapist and performance coach, encourages “ to view them as external entities, as clouds passing over a mountain, which helps to reinforce the idea that our thoughts and feelings come and go, largely involuntarily. They are not who we are.”

You can also try a guided practice led by Dr. Lillian Nejad here.

And if all else fails, get outside and just watch the clouds for a few minutes. Nature is always a wonderful antidote to stress and anxiety when nothing else seems to be working.

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