January 20, 2015

3 tips for beating stress in the moment

Even though my antidepressant keeps me from falling over a cliff of emotions, I still experience very stressful moments. Sometimes this happens when my son is acting up or defying me, other times he's not even around and I'm just making dinner. My pulse races along with my mind and I can't seem to catch up with myself.

My therapist (who happens to specialize in anxiety) gave me some tips for beating stress in the moment; things I can try to stop a stressful feeling in its tracks and cool down right away. After a few weeks, I've had several chances to try them out. Here are the three tips she gave me:
  1. Practice paradoxical intent. Developed by Dr. Viktor Frankl, the crazy idea behind this is to focus as hard as you can on an emotion in order to sort of confront it and break it down. In this case, when I feel stress I focus on being as stressed out as I possibly can: I can clench my fists, shut my eyes tight, and think "Stress! Stress!" It's so silly it actually works.
  2. Change the temperature. This is another technique that interrupts the cycle of stress or anxiety. Options include stepping outside to breathe cold air, running cold water over the wrists, or in extreme cases dunking an elbow in a bowl of ice water. Case in point: A few days ago, my son was clamoring at me begging for gummy candies and generally falling apart for several minutes. I wasn't going to give in just to make him quiet. So there I stood, with cold water running over my wrists, looking out the window and breathing deeply while he continued to cry at my feet. It really helped. After about ten seconds, the tense feeling in my gut eased and I felt more in control. My son? He got over it eventually.
  3. Do something intentionally. Even though I can feel stress just cooking, I actually enjoy doing it. It's the closest I can get to a creative hobby right now, and when I have time I really dig in. So sometimes I bake bread intentionally. I focus on the process -- weighing the flour, smelling the yeast in the dough, watching the mixer knead it into a smooth pattern in the bowl, feeling the texture on my fingers as I lay it out to rise. Using intention in doing something small makes me feel calm and centered so I'm less fluttered by the crazy moments that come later.
I'm not sure I have a preference for one tactic. I'm just not that organized. And sometimes I forget that I have these tools, but I can look at my son and remember that he's in a lot of pain when he can't communicate and doesn't know how to handle such big emotions. So I focus on softening myself instead and just stay near until the storm passes.