Readers will remember that I suggested five methods for us to practice during the COVID-19 days (and the days beyond that) to guarantee an improvement in our mental health. We have spoken about four of them during the past month: creating a daily schedule, doing exercise, practising mindfulness, and working on gratefulness. Today, we will look at the last (but not the least) which is improving our ability to relax.
Our bodies are designed (or have evolved, if that is our point of view) to be able to recognize danger, and to respond to it in a way that does its best to not get injured or even worse, to die. The means through which our bodies move from that realization and understanding of danger to the best course of action is by an emotion called fear. Fear, therefore, is a natural and adaptive feeling for us to have. The problem with fear though is when the danger stays around all the time, or when it disappears but our brains stay in the habit of feeling afraid anyway even though there is no real danger around any longer. In such cases, the fear becomes a problem and starts affecting not only our mental but also our physical health.
Chronic fear, also called stress, or worries, makes us:
The good news is that we can do something to break down that pattern and in the end, even make chronic stress go away. We can do it right now, and do it as many times as we want.
There are a great many things and techniques to do. Let’s talk about only three today. But first, let’s become aware of stress in our body. Let’s take a moment to survey our bodies right now. Is there tension in our neck or shoulders? What about that vague headache? Or feeling a bit flushed? Or knowing that we feel worried, stressed out, or on edge?
Our bodies always can tell us that they have chronic stress, but we tend not to listen.
If we pick up that stress is holding sway over us, the first powerful thing to do is:
Again, there are many methods to do this and we can go to YouTube and see many great video clips done by good teachers, showing us how to do any of many different exercises that work for this, such as progressive muscle relaxation.
I prefer to do this by yoga and stretching, as it also helps with mindfulness and making our muscles more flexible, preventing muscle injuries. (I am not saying that I do yoga well—in fact, I will not attend a class as I want to spare others the sight of me doing a child’s pose, or the plough pose. I do it in the privacy of my living room?).
There are many different breathing exercises to do, such as diaphragmatic breathing, the “lion’s breath”, Sitali breath, or alternate nostril breathing.
Because I work with people most of my waking day, I like to use a breathing technique called resonant breathing. It involves learning to breathe five times a minute. This form of breathing exercise increases our heart rate variability, brings stress down and may even help against depression.
This is how easy it is to do:
Inhale for a count of 5.
Exhale for a count of five.
Do this for at least five minutes.
3. Identify “stinking thinking”:
Often, the reason we remain stressed even if the external danger has long passed on, is that we think something that is not true or not helpful about that danger, or about previous dangers like that, or about similar dangers that are likely to cross our paths in future again. There are many examples of such thinking, but let’s just mention a few.
“Oh, this is awful! It’s horrible.”
“I should have managed that better.”
“I am always such a klutz when I speak to Jeannie. She is just so much smarter than I am.”
Once we catch ourselves at these thoughts, it is not difficult to change them, but it does take practice and time to keep them from creeping back and ruling our minds and our lives again.
Here are examples of how we can change the three stinking thoughts of above:
“It could have been worse. At least nobody was injured or died.”
“Nobody can tell for sure how we must act and respond in any given situation, as nobody lives my story and my life. Therefore, I can safely say I did the best I could at the time it happened.”
“Is it not interesting how I feel inferior when I am in Jeannie’s company? I wonder if I should not tell her that I feel like that, and then see what happens?”
Dear readers, I so enjoyed accompanying you in the smallest way during these difficult times. Thank you for allowing me to do so. Let me say again, during this unprecedented management of the 2020 pandemic the true heroes were all of you. You sacrificed so many things and so many of them nobody else even knew about. It is through all of your brave actions, by listening to the authorities and by taking care of the elderly and the vulnerable that Sparkling Hill Wellness Hotel can open again next Monday.
We cannot wait to welcome you back as we love above all else to be your partner in ongoing and growing health!
Dr. Strauss was born in South Africa, emigrating to Canada with his family in 1995. He has a private practice in the Fraser Valley and sees patients with mental health issues in his community. He was Head of the Psychiatry Department at a regional hospital with a staff of nine psychiatrists until last year when he decided to focus on his practice and his work at our hotel. Dr. Strauss has always been interested in long-term human relationships and envisioned enhancing relationships.
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