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Post No.: 0826heart

 

Fluffystealthkitten says:

 

Post No.: 0808 discussed how panic is often the instinctive response to stress, but a quick way to calm down is to take some deep breaths by inhaling through the nostrils for 4 counts, holding the breath for 7, and exhaling through the mouth for 8 counts. Unless we’re directly focused on our breathing, we don’t usually notice how shallowly we breathe at times (we’re sometimes even completely holding our breaths when concentrating on, say, trying to complete an infuriating level in a videogame!), and shallow breathing feeds back to keep us feeling stressed.

 

How we feel doesn’t just depend on what’s happening in our minds but what’s happening in our bodies as a whole. Psychology isn’t just about the mind. Cognition is embodied. Our mind is rooted in our body. How we think, reason and make decisions is influenced by the sensations we feel from our entire bodies.

 

It’s long been known that being a mentality monster can make the difference between winning and losing in sports. The mind affects what the body feels it can do. If you win a round during a multi-stage race, you tend to feel like you have the energy to go again. But if you lose, you feel relatively more drained. You’ve physically gone through the exact same race distance but feel mentally different going forwards.

 

So our minds affect our bodies, and how our bodies are behaving feeds back to our minds. Every breath goes through a cycle of energising and relaxing you – every inhalation activates the sympathetic branch of your nervous system a bit (or a lot whenever you overreact to something and hyperventilate); while every exhalation activates the parasympathetic branch a bit (or a lot whenever you feel scared to death and faint). Therefore a deep sigh is a natural way to release tension – simply breathe in fully, then breathe out fully for longer on the exhale. That simulates exactly what we do when we go ‘phew!’

 

Humming involves breathing out too, which activates our vagus nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate. So singing a tune, humming, or repeating a mantra, during a stressful moment can calm us down too. Breathing techniques are central to yoga, tai chi and singing. If you’re giving a speech – pause for a moment, breathe deeply and slowly, then project loudly.

 

Cyclic hyperventilation followed by breath retention, according to the ‘Wim Hof Method’ of breathing meditation, might temporarily reduce one’s inflammatory response to an injection of endotoxins; although the scientific proof for any other benefits is disputed.

 

Laugh out loud! Aim for at least 15 minutes daily. Our breathing becomes fuller and more relaxed after a good, hearty laugh!

 

There’s often a fine line between laughter and tragedy – but the fact that we can laugh at an event means that it was a false alarm and everything is actually alright (at least for us or someone we care about in the case of schadenfreude!) Laughter might have evolved to bring us quickly down from a false alarm fight-or-flight response – treating a surprise as a harmless rather than threatening one. It calms us down afterwards, and reduces our blood pressure and heart rate, hence it’s good for our health. It’s also social, socially contagious, good for relationships (unless we’re laughing at rather than with someone), it helps us to regulate our emotions, and it ultimately makes us feel better.

 

When we’re stressed or anxious, our heart rate increases, and when we begin to calm down again, our heart rate decreases. And vice-versa too – if you try to directly reduce your heart rate, you can begin to calm down sooner. In order to do this, you must be mindful of or attuned to your own body and its signals (interoception). Consciously counting your heart rate is one way to practise this. You can also tell yourself that you’re okay or that things are going to be okay.

 

Experiencing the sensations of touch with another human being you trust, or a fluffy pet (some people say that a purring cat curled up on their lap is incredibly calming for them – meow), or even just recalling such a moment, can activate the release of oxytocin, which evokes a feeling of safety, trust and calm. This is the power of a physical hug.

 

If you’re alone then try the hand on the heart exercise – placing either hand gently on your heart as you softly but deeply breathe can soothe your mind and body. Feel the warmth of your hand soothing your heart. As you’re doing this, recall and savour the memory of a moment when you felt safe and loved by another human being (just that moment rather than the entire relationship). Repeat this exercise several times a day at first to strengthen the neural circuitry that remembers this pattern of feelings. Then practise it whenever you experience the first signs of feeling unsafe or upset, to help you back out of a difficult emotional reaction before it hijacks you. You might want to experiment with placing two hands on your chest to see if that works better for you? It often just takes a minute to work, and it works better if you accompany the moment by breathing a sense of ease, safety, positive thoughts, trust or goodness into the centre of your heart.

 

An item of comfort that you can reach for when you need it can similarly help calm you down – for children this can be a cuddly toy or blanket. Some prefer chewing some gum.

 

Self-soothing gestures can arise naturally and can help temporarily as a distraction, like twiddling a hair band wrapped around one’s thumb for some people. These strategies will not tackle the root cause of your anxieties though, and in some cases the self-soothing gesture can be harmful itself, like the action of scrolling down social media pages for hours.

 

Fidgeting is a common self-comfort or coping mechanism when we’re stressed. Yet it is a form of distraction (and may distract and annoy others too) thus fidgeting may reduce overall task performance if we’re doing something important.

 

Near the end of a race or competitive match, especially if we’re in front, we can start to feel a ‘choking’ feeling or ‘yips’ as we’re counting down the distance or time to the finish. One technique to combat this feeling is to imagine that there’s actually an extra kilometre or few minutes to go (e.g. if there’s 10 minutes until the final whistle, imagine that there’s actually 20 minutes to go). We need to concentrate on being present during the race or game rather than be distracted by and over-thinking about what might or mightn’t happen when we reach the finish line or final whistle.

 

If you can look after one responsibly, get a cute dog. It could be the daily walks for exercise, having a non-judgemental and always listening friend, the loyal company, the stroking (even holding a hospital patient’s hand helps to calm a patient down), or the social benefits (meeting other dog owners in the park and being an ice-breaker – lots of people like to talk to those with any friendly animal). Even a robot or cuddly toy animal, whatever age you are, or watching a video or two of any cute animal, can work wonders for one’s well-being.

 

So dogs encourage you to go outside, exercise and to engage with others. But it’s not necessary to have a dog to spend time with other people socially or to go outside in the sunshine for half an hour each day when it’s sunny (but do take care when it’s extremely sunny and hot). If it’s not magnificent weather then at least open the windows and get some fresh air into the room if it’s getting stuffy.

 

Whenever you feel in a bad mood, stuck in a mental rut or feel social tension with somebody – stand up and go for a walk. Exercise regularly – exercise is good for your mental as well as physical well-being. If you’re active in any way (e.g. in your job or when doing housework) then consciously acknowledge that you have done the activity and think about the benefits it has given you.

 

Possibly also, those who don’t frequently exercise or train hard with discipline (e.g. adhering to a pre-planned gym routine or practising oriental martial arts) aren’t as used to experiencing or therefore controlling sudden extreme spikes of testosterone or cortisol, and so they risk losing self-control far more easily when they’re feeling fangry. Regular exercise isn’t just for developing oneself physically, but for developing oneself mentally and perhaps spiritually.

 

Many anxieties have their roots in our poor physical health. Sometimes we cannot help them but sometimes it’s down to our own diets, physical activity levels and sleep habits. Thus to alleviate these anxieties and look after our mental health, we need to look after our physical health. Again our physical health affects our mental health, and vice-versa – they’re interconnected. So the next time you feel anxious – instead of having another cup of coffee – go for a walk. That caffeine might make things worse too, even if you’re feeling sleepy due to sleep deprivation, because caffeine mimics many of the same symptoms as anxiety, like the heart palpitations. This caffeine might also make it harder for you to fall sleep once you want to. And for the lack of sleep, you might gravitate towards calorie-dense comfort foods, which then make you feel sluggish, and so forth in a vicious cycle.

 

Frequent testing can sustain attention and improve learning. It also reduces anxiety towards a final exam because we’ll have rehearsed it to a degree. We’re not going totally into the unknown when the crucial day arrives. Training makes just about anything gradually easier to do – the problem is that we have a tendency to be afraid of taking the very first steps in trying something for the first time. That’s why practising first in a safe environment is critical i.e. where the results or consequences don’t matter, whether materially or reputationally.

 

It does teach us that, to combat fear, we should expose ourselves to a wide variety of challenging situations and practise, practise, practise, to systematically desensitise ourselves to the alien and make the unfamiliar familiar. Label your physiological responses as good things too (e.g. the shaking or rising heart rate as excitement and readiness). And change your perspective or approach to the situation (e.g. from serious to a game). Visualise a great performance. Cognitively modify your approach to challenging situations. Knowledge affords confidence so train your skills and learn techniques from experts to make a specific task simpler (this is easier to do now with the Internet). Knowing banishes the unknown!

 

We might indeed bemoan about having spent ages doing some work when if we had possessed a little more knowledge then we could’ve saved ourselves much anguish. For example, we might’ve spent hours scraping off stickers from a table when we could’ve used white spirit, penetrating oil or some other solvent and the job would’ve been done within minutes! So a lot of work or ‘work’ is only because of a lack of knowledge, or initiative to ask or search for help to see if anyone else knows a better technique or course of action. So pause and think before jumping in.

 

Stop, take a few deep breaths, observe, think and then proceed/respond…

 

And sometimes it’s less stressful and wastes less energy to just clean up a stain or spill without trying to argue about who possibly made the mess because there’s no way to prove who did it. There are ways to clean nearly all grime and fix all things given the right parts, tools, knowledge and skill. But even if, say, an irreplaceable rug does get wrecked by your cat – it’s just a rug, and that’s what cats do(!)

 

Meow. So manage your expectations too!

 

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