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5 Fast and Easy Self-Care Moves for Stressful Times

By Patricia Smith
March 02, 2023

Life throws us a curveball occasionally. When your mother-in-law announces unexpectedly that she'll be arriving on a 3 p.m. flight, or your boss moves up that deadline to tomorrow at 8 a.m. sharp, there’s no time to decompress at the nearest spa. When faced with anxiety, stress, and OMG overload, the quickest way to stay calm and carry on is to perform a self-care intervention in the moment.

Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., regards on-the-spot interventions as indispensable in dealing with life as we know it. “I recommend microskills that individuals can use anywhere, anytime,” says the executive director of TEND Academy, which provides mental health education and resources to first responders and frontline healthcare workers in Ontario, Canada.

What kind of microskills, you ask? “We know from years of neuroscience research that the best tools are the ones that we employ small and often," she says. “[Such microskills] help reduce cortisol and related stress hormones by resetting with a short burst of activity."

Add these five on-the-spot skills to your wellness toolbox so you'll be ready the next time an unexpected tangle sets your heart racing and your stomach churning.

Breathe Consciously

Breathing deeply by taking long, deep breaths, inhaling from your belly and exhaling from your nose, promotes instantaneous relaxation. Richard Swan, an accountant in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, uses this pattern when number crunching creates stress. “I know I overreact to stressful situations, and deep breathing centers me,” he says. "This motivates me to return to my running schedule and eat healthy every meal.”

Andrew Weil, M.D., founder of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, developed the 4-7-8 breathing technique based on an ancient yogic pattern called pranayama. Breathe in on a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and release your breath through the nose on a count of 8.

Write It Down

Converting our inner thoughts and feelings into words via journaling can help you process your whirlpool of emotions. It doesn’t matter what you write; the input is yours and yours alone.

As an ongoing practice, some may benefit from doing their journaling at night to offload stress and clear their head before bedtime. Others may find that putting their thoughts—positive and negative—down on paper first thing in the morning is more helpful.

Julia Cameron, author of the groundbreaking book The Artist’s Way, introduced “Morning Pages” to start off a go-do-it day. “Morning meanderings are not meant to be art,” she instructs. “Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.”

If your thoughts give you pause when you’re writing, remember, it’s for your eyes only. After completing each day’s entry, shred or burn the evidence. If you choose to keep it all for posterity and to review how far you’ve come, that works, too.

Get Moving

During stressful times, Mathieu's go-to is to get moving. "I focus on reducing cortisol and related stress hormones by resetting with a short burst of activity, such as 10 jumping jacks, or running up a flight of stairs between clients.”

If you prefer a gentler form of movement, taking a five-minute power walk may help put things in perspective. Better still, combine your walk with a bit of mindful meditation. A small study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri suggests a brisk 10-minute walk or meditation session may improve mood.

At work, use the buddy system and ask a trusted colleague to cover for you as you head out for a brief respite. That way, you can focus on your change of scenery knowing someone has your back. And you can return the favor when they need to blow off some steam.

Pump Up the Tunes

A meta-analysis of 400 studies suggests that listening to music is more effective than prescription drugs for decreasing anxiety in patients awaiting surgery.

In the intensive care unit at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City, among many others, the power of music filled the hallways during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each time a coronavirus patient was well enough to be taken off a ventilator, the Beatles tune “Here Comes the Sun” was played over the public address system.

And at St. Luke's University Health Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the Rocky theme, "Gonna Fly Now," was played whenever a COVID-19 patient was discharged. Bone-weary caregivers responded to the tune and uplifting lyrics with a sense of hope and happiness on the spot, in the moment.

So, keep those earbuds handy. Rock out with Mozart, Lady Gaga, or the Weeknd. The choice is up to you.

Laugh Away Stress

Humor brightens dark times and can relieve stress. As cognitive scientist Art Markman, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today, “Humor has two benefits. Being witty and telling enhancing jokes increases people’s social support, which helps people feel better in difficult times. In addition, the use of positive forms of humor can help people to think about stressful situations in new ways.”

Next time you find yourself in the middle of a stressful situation, bring on the dad jokes and bad puns, or watch a clip of your favorite standup comedian or comedy movie on YouTube.

Any one of these five interventions can help us to refocus and recenter. Mathieu reminds us that these on-the-spot stress-coping skills take time to master, but it's possible to transform our stress into success. “Remember that small and often, over time, is the key to learning to integrate self-care and resetting skills into your challenging days.”

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