Change, like Thanos, is inevitable.
Changes, especially major changes to lifestyles or daily routines, can increase stress levels, which can then cause issues relating to our emotional and physical well-being. Again, much like Thanos.
Change can be difficult, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, sad, or angry. Remember to be kind to yourself as you figure as out your new normal. Fortunately, we can learn healthy ways to manage stress more effectively.
Stress is our body’s normal response to difficult situations that we are unable to manage effectively. Once our brain decides we are in a crisis, it signals for stress-specific hormones to flood our bloodstream. Our muscles tense up, ready for action. Our heart beats faster, and we take quick, shallow breaths to raise oxygen levels throughout our body. This helps us focus on the threat and block out distractions.
This process is what is often referred to as the fight or flight reaction. It happens very quickly, usually before we are aware these changes are taking place. Once the crisis is resolved, our heart, muscles, and other physical systems return to their pre-stress level of functioning.
Change triggers stress and major changes trigger major stress. The effects of large-scale disruptions can send aftershocks through all aspects of life including work, relationships, and even hobbies. When so much of the present has been altered and the future is unknown, everything seems scary. Your brain screams, “Danger, Will Robinson!” prepping for a threat that appears to be coming from every direction.
Normally, our brain signals the body to switch back to its more relaxed state once the crisis is over. But it relies on what we think, see, and hear to decide when the coast is clear. If we continue to think about the situation, our brain may not realize it is safe to give that all-clear signal.
Drastic, long-term changes to our lifestyle can produce a constant sense of dread: when is the coast clear? Without an answer, the brain to stays on alert, and the body is unable to return to that relaxed, pre-stress level of functioning. This can cause an assortment of issues, like a lower quality of sleep, memory and concentration problems, digestive issues, heart problems, and problems with the immune system.
Practical Stress Management
Managing this amount of stress means letting our body and mind get closer to that pre-stress state. Stress impacts everyone differently and it is important to find the tools and techniques that work best for you as you adapt to recent changes. All of these are common strategies for stress management. If you have any questions about your individual needs, please consult with a licensed mental health professional.
Having a daily routine can create a sense of order and control during major transitions. Outline the hours for work or school, then schedule meals. Give yourself short breaks throughout the day so you can move around and have a good stretch. Keep your routine balanced by planning daily physical activities and setting aside time to relax.
Let Your Body Relax
Do you have any stress-related tension on your body? Are your shoulders tense, or maybe your neck feels tight? Scanning one’s body can be a useful tool to relax or calm down after a long day. Sit on a chair with hands resting on your lap. Starting at the top of your head mentally check for any tightness along your scalp. If you don’t find any, move down to your forehead, jaw, neck, etc. until you get to your toes. When you notice tension focus on relaxing that muscle, then move on.
Slow, deep breaths expand lungs, bringing oxygen into the bloodstream helping your body relax. One focused breathing technique is sitting down, back straight, hands resting on your lap. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Exhale through your mouth, again counting to 4. Repeat a few times until you feel more relaxed.
No joke—a good, long, belly laugh may be the ticket to reducing your stress. Laughing increases your oxygen intake and can signal your brain to turn off the stress response. If you’re looking for a giggle, many stand-up comics have videos available online. Or just re-watch your favorite sitcom for the 27th time.
Emotions are valid, but they are not always accurate, especially when it comes to stress. Using logic can help understand what is an actual problem that may need attention, and what isn’t. A simple example would be: you forgot your umbrella and are worried about walking home in the rain. Can you come up with any facts that support that worry? The sky is clear and you don’t hear thunder. Weather report is negative for rain all week. It has rained in the past, so it is a possibility. This means that it’s 2:1 for evidence against possible rain. If it was 2:1 for rain, then it might be a realistic problem that requires a solution like borrowing an umbrella, getting a ride from a friend, or learning to dance like Gene Kelly.
Honing a new set of skills takes practice and learning to manage your stress in healthy, positive ways is no different. But having a solid set of go-to techniques may help you navigate everything change brings your way.
Effectiveness against Thanos may vary.
Erika Stewart Wheelhouse, MA, LMHC served in the US Army Medical Corps before earning her Masters in Counseling Psychology. She treats teens with traumatic stress in a clinical setting and advocates in the community for reduced stigma associated with mental illness as the managing director of Strive Family Resources. She is also a proud volunteer Psychomancer with TakeThis.