Tools for De-stressing

Written by Project Sanctuary Counselor, Michelle L. Kaye, MA, LPC.

“Hey honey, I signed us up for a family retreat!  This will be so good for us, we’ve been wanting to get away, and it will be good for the kids, too.” 

A conversation that starts like this before a Project Sanctuary retreat often goes one of two ways, and then bounces back and forth: excited or stressed. Looking forward to it, dreading it. Knowing it could change your lives in the best way possible…and fearful that it might change your lives in the worst way possible.  As fun as it might sound, and you know you need the break, you might be feeling fairly certain that it will feel very uncomfortable.

You’re not alone, and you’re not crazy. This is how it begins.

“Stress” has become such a cliché buzzword in our culture today that many people tend to roll their eyes and disregard it as meaningless. However, what many people do not know is that stress – like most other emotions – has its positive and its negative sides.  Eustress outpictures as excitement, the positive side of stress, while distress outpictures as fear, or the nervous side of stress.  The brain actually fires the same circuits for both: it is our own “spin,” our own perspective that makes the decision to choose if we experience it as a positive charge or a negative one.

Especially in the military, or as a Veteran, the amygdala – our “Flight, Fight, or Freeze” survival response – is often already in high gear, on point, ready to escalate the slightest trigger into something that feels dangerous.

This is where our “greatest weapon” – our own breath – can be our ally. You hear it all the time: “just take a deep breath.”  To a lot of people, that sounds like “touchy-feely unicorn talk.” But in reality, one conscious, slow, deep breath can be a game changer for your relationships, for your parenting, for your sanity.  One deep breath is the difference between a reaction and a response – the difference between a sharp word that can take you into an argument, or an opportunity to step back from a situation and choose the words you want, rather than being ruled by stressed-out brain wiring.

There are many techniques that people teach about the power of our breath (see links below for some examples), and they can all work, when we choose to use them. They can work for us, and they can work for our children, spouses, and colleagues.

The top 3 tips for making this work for you:

1).  The minute you recognize yourself in a negative stress response – starting to raise your voice, heart starts beating faster, thoughts start racing – STOP.   Stop everything, unclench your jaw, and pause: take a deep breath that fills up your belly, expands your ribs, and extends all the way to your lower back.  It may feel weird at first, but it will give you that moment of choice to continue in a calmer, more thoughtful way.  Your brain will appreciate it, and so will the person standing across from you.

2).  When your thoughts start to spin – from a trigger, from a situation, from a person – take that breath and step back from the situation (you might even excuse yourself for a moment), and ask yourself, “could I see this situation differently? Could I see this as an opportunity to do or say something different to shift the situation into something positive – or at least neutral – rather than continue to contribute to the negative direction it’s heading in?”  9 times out of 10, the answer will be “yes, you can.”

3).  Learn to understand and befriend your brain.  No matter how mixed up or broken it may feel sometimes, the more you learn what it’s doing and why, when you learn that you are not your thoughts, and that thoughts are NOT facts, the more you will learn to take agency over your survival brain and start living more in your calmer, more rational brain.

That’s the kicker: it won’t happen by itself. Your perception of a stressor is up to you. It is ultimately your choice, even when it doesn’t feel like it, and one deep breath is the beginning. It’s the key to choosing how you want to live your life, how you want to perceive yourself, and how you want others to perceive you.