3 Basic Stress Management Techniques (From 10-Year Old Mallie)

Back in a time before the internet was actually useful and safe for a child to explore unsupervised (pre-parental controls in the 1990s), I liked to read encyclopedias and other reference books for fun. I admire little Mallie’s patience and concentration, as the thought of doing that today is incredibly boring, despite my preference for non-fiction books.

My parents had a medical reference book that taught how to treat various minor aches and illnesses at home. Even as a child, I was drawn to the stress management section. In retrospect, I suppose this should have been a red flag about my chronic anxiety issues that weren’t discovered for another 15 years, but I was a generally curious kid.

I’ve learned a lot about stress management from various workshops and literature I obtained in grad school and in therapy…oh, and from the internet. But these basic techniques that I integrated as a child and teenager are still relevant and effective today.

1. Deep Breathing

Have you ever taken a yoga class?

Most often the class will start with a focus on your breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Breathe deeply.

Scientifically, there is a link between controlling your breath and controlling your otherwise involuntary sympathetic nervous system, which impacts things like your blood pressure and digestion.

When you get anxious or nervous, your body begins to react the way it was designed to: tensing up, producing shallow breaths, sweating, etc. This was a great result when we got nervous because we were being chased by a mastadon thousands of years ago, but now it’s often an overreaction (physically, at least) to a heavy workload or stressful situation at home.

It’s more difficult to control all these responses at once than it is to control your breathing. As your breath calms, it communicates to the rest of your body that everything is ok, producing the proper neurochemical signals to relax the muscles and lower the heart beat.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Wait, weren’t we just talking about how difficult it is to relax your muscles?

In fact, it is believed that the reason for knots in your muscles–you know, the ones you need deep tissue massages to get out?–is an inability of those muscles to relax and deconstrict.

Awareness is an amazing thing. The idea behind progressive muscle relaxation (steps included in that link) is that by making your body aware of the tension, you allow the muscle to relax.

Obviously this will only work for muscles that you can control (I, for one, can’t wiggle my ears or tighten my ankle muscles), and it will take some time for your body to adapt to this mix of physical and mental therapy.

3. Mindfulness Meditation

I feel like I talk about meditation a lot on The Irrational Mind. But I don’t think I talk about it nearly enough here. Meditation is beneficial to everyone, not just people dealing with mental health issues.

Think this is new age gobbledygook? Think again! Google “meditation science” and look at all the results. Hit up the Google Scholar search as well, and see that meditation is an active area of research in the scientific community.

There are so many forms of meditation, but mindfulness meditation is likely one of the least intentionally spiritual methods and the most straightforward. Of course, there are also multiple forms of mindfulness meditation as well, but let’s keep things simple for now.

Ready for your instructions?

  1. Sit
  2. Breathe. Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body.
  3. Notice your thoughts
  4. Don’t dwell on any one thought, just acknowledge it and move on
  5. Notice your body
  6. Release any tension you notice
  7. Get distracted? Refocus on your breath.

Bam. You just meditated. No need to sit cross-legged, clean your chakras, wear yoga pants, or find a serene beach.

This isn’t something that you need to commit half an hour a day to; research has shown that even 10 minutes of meditation each day can be beneficial to how your brain handles stress and anxiety.

What other simple stress mediating techniques do you like to use?

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Take Ownership Of Your Health

I did a sleep study a couple months ago. I’ve had sleeping issues my entire life. My parents stopped giving me naps as a toddler because I would stay up until midnight. When the naps stopped, I still stayed up until midnight.

I won’t bore you with the complicated details of my sleep habits, but I’m tired almost all day. I nap a lot. I’ve had bloodwork done and thyroid levels checked, all to come back in normal ranges.

The funny thing about depression is that it makes you tired. But my depression has been fairly well controlled recently with therapy and medication.

So I got a referral to a sleep doctor in Bethesda.

Because this is D.C., I had to wait two months after my study to even see the specialist to review my results.

Because this is D.C., I had to wait two hours past my appointment time to finally see the doctor. I was feeling pretty zen that day, so I did some work on my tablet in the waiting room.

As with most doctors recently, I have the fear that I’m just going to be told to lose weight to fix all my problems. I always wait, ready to let them know this is a lifelong problem, not something precipitated by my sudden weight gain related to my binge eating disorder.

So, two hours past my appointment time, I finally was called into the specialist’s office. She had a nice demeanor, unlike the nurse who had taken my vitals beforehand. Little did I know that I would be weighed and blood pressured for this consultation. I sat there with my latte half empty, unsurprised that my pulse and blood pressure were high given my reaction to caffeine. I was sure this would be another mark against my weight. Great.

I had already watched the required pre-recorded video in the waiting room about parasomnia in adults, and tensed up when the specialist said that anti-depressants often create these problems. Ugh, I thought, this stuff was happening way before I started meds.

So I sat in front of the doctor, ready for her to tell me to get off meds and lose weight. My blood pressure was already high from the latte, and I felt it rising as I waited for her to speak.

“Do you want a York Peppermint Patty?”

She went over to a box and grabbed two, and she started eating hers immediately.

I declined, not because I was wary of being perceived as the fat kid who eats anything she’s given, but because I just wasn’t really hungry. Plus one to intuitive eating.

“Alright then, so tell me why you’re here.”

I told her my sleep history, starting as a toddler. I told her about my vivid dreams and sleep paralysis, my sleep talking and flailing, my binge eating, and how this time 3 years ago I was 180 lbs and on zero medications. Yet the sleep problems were constants.

She listened. I loved it. As she was typing she furrowed her brow, “Hmm….you’re making things complicated.”

The appointment lasted two hours. She wanted more details and I was happy to provide them. She said that my mental health was the most important thing and that, after years of work in the medical field, she finally realizes that there is much more at play than calories in and calories out when it comes to weight. We talked about hormones and how sleep and other conditions affect their levels.

We went through my sleep study results and she explained what each thing meant. She, a doctor in her 60s, was unafraid to tell me that there are things about sleep they still don’t understand.

I left with a better (albeit big picture level) understanding of sleep science and with the relief of knowing I told my story and she listened.

The lesson here is to take ownership of your health. Give them more information than they think they need, because that information may become valuable in your records.

There are two parts of making this work, of course, and a doctor set in her ways may not care about your history and look only at the data she has.

I made sure that my story was more than the numbers, and it paid off. When I left, she set me up with one of her staff members for a follow-up visit, then shook her head to herself. “You’re an interesting case, so I’m putting you with one of my staff who has a bit more experience. She may have to pull me back in to look at things as well.”

Working with doctors can be intimidating, especially if you find one who is set in his ways and unwilling to look past your size, disability, or other numbers. You have to advocate for yourself, even if that means finding a new doctor, because no one else is going to.

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