Has there ever been a time in your life, perhaps in your childhood, when you experienced a feeling of pure safety and a profound sense of peace? A feeling that everything was right with the world and you didn’t have a single care in it?
You might have been out-of-doors, feeling a soft breeze on your skin and soaking in the beauty of nature. Maybe it was a time when you were visiting a doting grandparent that made you feel like you were the focus of their delight and affection. If a particular instance doesn’t come to mind right away, ponder the place you go to feel most alive and refreshed. Is it the beach? Maybe it’s hiking a mountain trail, where you are swept away in awe of the magnitude and beauty that surrounds you.
Picture yourself in that place. Stressful thoughts can’t intrude. You feel calm. The temperature is perfect and you feel just right. The breath in your lungs starts softening, slowing, deepening. You notice the tense muscles in your neck and back loosing, the knot in your stomach gently coming undone. Your mind and body are relaxed, totally at ease, becoming nourished, satisfied.
As you continue to breathe deeply and picture yourself in the safe place you’ve been to or would like to be, use your senses to highlight the experience of it. Notice what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. If you’re sitting on the beach, start naming all the things you see, like the crashing waves along the shore, the seagulls soaring, children building a sandcastle or flying a kite, boats sailing past. Next, imagine all the sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings associated with being in that place. Feel the warmth of the sand as you bury your toes. Smell the sea air and taste the salt brine. Hear the children’s laughter and the pounding of the surf.
Enjoy the calm you feel in your safe place and continue visualizing yourself there as long as feels good to you. Remember, you can go back here in your mind’s eye anytime, anywhere when you want to take a break from troublesome thoughts and feelings associated with stress. This is a helpful practice you can adopt for not only stress management, but for self-care as well. It’s something nice you can do for yourself.
If you’re a sceptic and find yourself balking at the suggestion to try the exercise described above, I encourage you to read on about what happens when stress, particularly chronic stress is not managed.
When we experience a high amount of stress, our brains interpret that in the same way as if we were encountering actual physical danger. “The fight-or-flight” response (a very good thing) equips us to respond quickly in getting us out of harm’s way. The stress response system activates a flood of hormones, primarily cortisol and adrenaline, which has an immediate effect on the body. Heightened glucose levels increase heart rate, and blood flows to the extremities, equipping the body to respond to immediate threat. When the danger has passed, hormone levels return to normal, (Alison Caldwell, PhD. brainfacts.org).
Unfortunately, since the fear center in our brains (amygdala and limbic system) can’t differentiate between stress from clear and present danger, chronic stress can develop if not kept in check. When stress becomes chronic, the stress response system is working overtime (a very bad thing). Those same hormones that are so important in getting us out of dangerous situations can lead to all kinds of problems. Trouble sleeping, digestive problems, weakened immune system, (Alison Caldwell, PhD.), high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, to name a few (mayoclinic.org).
You just read how the brain communicates with the body, but did you know that in much the same way, the body has the ability to send communication signals to the brain? In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, renowned trauma expert, Bessel Van Der Kolk teaches that the body plays an important role in turning off the fight or flight response in the brain. This is a simplified version of how it works: When the body, especially the visceral organs are calm, communication traveling through the vagal nerve lets the brain know it doesn’t need to be on high alert anymore. It says “You’re safe.” If you’re not in any immediate danger, yet are experiencing the associated symptoms described above (rapid heartbeat, tense or trembling muscles, etc.) doing exercises such as the one you just read about, produce calmness in the body and have an immediate effect on the survival part of your brain.
Let me leave you with this as I wrap up these thoughts on stress management:
- Stress is a part of life, but it does not need to rule your life and make you sick.
- Stress is generated by negative perceptions of certain situations, so a great deal of our stress can be reduced if we develop a healthier way of looking at things. For example, one person could find exploring a new city as exhilarating and energizing, when another person would find it nerve-racking and exhausting.
- The safe place visualization described above is just one of many strategies you can put in place to bring your stress levels down.
- Stress can effectively be managed through behavioral modifications, such as physical exercise, deep breathing, and mindfulness exercises.
- If you’d like to learn more, I have so much good information and plenty of strategies to share. Don’t let another day go by with chronic stress in the driver’s seat. I encourage you to reach out for help so you can take charge of what’s within your control and start doing practical things for a healthier, happier you.