Sunday, July 29, 2012

No Need to Panic: The Art of Chilling Out

In addition to academic studies, many college students are learning about their limits with respect to stress and frustration.  As noted in a previous post, college is a time of new demands on many levels, which means adopting new stress management skills if one hopes to do well in life.

This learning is sometimes marked by peaks of anxiety and stress, of feeling overwhelmed, and of outright panic.  This can happen even in those for whom things are going well.  How a student manages these intense periods can make the difference between improving a situation or making it dramatically worse.  You can make things worse by impulsively acting on feelings of panic.  So let's talk about how to turn a stressful moment into an opportunity to make things better.

To manage peaks of stress one must learn to master physiological arousal, strong emotions and negative thoughts.  Most folks are aware of our body's built-in circuits of arousal, the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response in reaction to threat.  By the time someone reaches college, this system has been initiated countless times, and is so hard-wired as to be very rapid and even outside consciousness.  And therein lies the problem.  It has become a reflex for many, and their perception is they can't do anything about it.  But this is not true.  What many do not know is that our bodies also have built-in relaxation responses.  Just as our bodies and brains can mobilize against perceived threats, so too can they calm and slow down in order to access higher cortical processes or problem-solving.  This slowing down is essential for accessing our memory and use of judgment.  Panic is good for running, but horrible for higher thought.  If you've ever gone blank during an exam you know what I am talking about here.

So, here are some ways to calm down in a moment of intense stress:
  • First, manage your breathing.  Sit down somewhere, and uncross your arms and legs.  Place one hand on your abdomen.  If you are breathing correctly that hand will rise and fall as your diaphragm muscle extends downward, allowing your lungs to fill with air.  Fix your gaze on a point in front of you, or close your eyes.  Slowly inhale through your nose, and slowly exhale through pursed lips.  Depending on body size, the breaths should be around three to five seconds apart.  In order to breathe well one must concentrate on these steps, and that is part of the secret because doing so is incompatible with worry or negative thoughts.  The other part of the secret is breathing of this type delivers a higher rate of oxygen to our brains than what occurs when we panic.  And oxygen makes our brains happy.  Keep breathing all the way through the wave of stress until you notice it is diminishing.  Practice your breathing at least daily, and every time you notice your earliest warning signals for stress and anxiety.  If you get good at it, you can abbreviate some of the steps and quickly enter a deeply relaxed state anywhere, at any time.  You can also learn more about helpful breathing.
  • If you like imagery, close your eyes after your breathing and hold any image that you find peaceful, serene or relaxing in your mind's eye.  As you hold that image try to capture all the detail in the objects, sounds or smells of this place.  If you get distracted, don't worry about it, just keep going back to that image.  Another secret of stress management is taking yourself elsewhere, away from your troubles, in your own mind.  This acts like a reset button which clears the noise in our heads.
  • Stress has physical components which increases tension in our muscles.  You can address this by tensing and relaxing, in alternating fashion, muscle groups from your toes all the way up to your head and face.  Create tension, for example, by clenching your fist as tightly as you can for a few seconds.  Then let it go, letting your hand fall as loose and limp as a wet noodle. And notice the contrast, the slightly warm or tingling sensation which comes from relaxing a muscle group.  The sensations are usually quite enjoyable.
  • All of this is the easy part.  The harder part involves addressing our negative thoughts, our "stinking thinking".  Catch yourself engaging in typical thought patterns when under stress: magnification of problems, seeing problems as catastrophic, internalizing or personalizing problems, or hopelessness.  You can address these by saying to yourself "I am not thinking clearly.  I need to focus on one thing I can do today that will move me in the direction I want to go."
  • Stress management is not complete until we examine what caused us to panic in the first place.  Such reactions occur for fairly specific reasons, such as over-extending ourselves,  poor preparation or coping skills, or perhaps failing to establish or uphold our personal boundaries in some way.  Once you are in a calmer state, and thinking more clearly as a result, spend some time problem solving about what needs to change.
Once these skills are developed a sense of confidence and resilience can be achieved.  Frustration tolerance will also increase such that future stressful moments are less likely to produce intense, reflexive reactions.  Like any skill, this takes practice, and there is no shortcut.  The skills are not a "cure" for what caused panic in the first place; that must be addressed through good judgment and decision-making.  But the skills are important management tools, the building blocks of which you already possess.  They simply await your time and attention.