We all need to chill out. Seriously — stress is one of the biggest mental health issues of our time. Yet despite how hazardous stress can be, and despite how beneficial calm is, very few of us are stress-literate.
For a start, there are different types of stress. We might feel stressed for an hour, ahead of an imminent work deadline or school exam. It might be for a week, during the settlement of a house or the last trimester of a pregnancy. These are examples of situational stress, with a direct cause in life events.
Then there’s stress of a more niggling kind — one that lasts for months on end, as multiple responsibilities and concerns (which by themselves might be relatively minor) jar and duke in your mind. The result is a type of mental burnout that leaves you irritable, unmotivated, or worse. This is known as chronic stress. Being constantly situationally stressed can also bring about this headspace.
The state of stress
When we surveyed 500 Australians about their mental wellbeing, about 21% said they desired more calm. Interestingly, when we asked them about a loved one’s mental wellbeing, calm was cited 34% of the time, higher than any other response — suggesting we are quick to identify the need for calm in others, and slower to see when it comes to our own.
That’s because, if you aren’t aware of them, the warning signs of stress are subtle and easily dismissed — tingly armpits; a racing mind; trouble sleeping; constant ruminating, worrying, or panicking; an increased heart rate or shortness of breath in the absence of physical exertion.
Stress is a distinct physiological state. And the longer we keep ourselves in this state, the more dangerous it is for our health. Chronic stress is often the precursor for more serious mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Take a deep breath
You may be losing your chill right about now — but relax. Psychotherapist Charlotte Stapf, who assisted in the creation of Intangible Goods, has a simple stress solution which she often recommends to her clients — mindfulness.
Mindfulness is one of those words which brings skeptics out in droves. But strip away the new age mysticism and there is some hard science behind it — a reduction in the volume of grey matter in your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for stress) when practiced for at least 10 minutes a day for 6 weeks in a row.
The basic premise of mindfulness is to shift from being a participant in your thoughts, to being an observer of your thoughts. Think of it as the difference between being caught outside in a thunderstorm, and watching the same storm from a covered verandah — you can still see the rain, smell the rain, even feel light spray, but you yourself stay dry and unsoaked. In the same way, mindfulness allows you to still fully feel your thoughts, the positive and the negative, all while maintaining a subtle internal feeling of separation.
To get there though, you have to start small, and Charlotte recommends this two minute mindfulness exercise:
Step 1: Step away
When you find yourself feeling stressed, step back from whatever you are doing. Make yourself a tea. Or if you don’t drink tea, go outside for a walk.
Step 2: Let go
While sipping on your tea or walking around the block, allow yourself to let go of whatever it is you are thinking about. Let yourself forget it, just for the time being.
Step 3: Focus on your breath
Instead, focus on the present moment. Using your breath offers a convenient anchor. Notice how air rushes in to your nose cold, and flows out warm. Take gentle note of how each breath feels slightly different from the last. (If it helps you can close your eyes during this part of the exercise).
Step 4: Focus on your senses
After a minute of conscious breathing, shift your focus to each of the other physical senses — slowly but gently. Feel the warmth of the steam or sunlight on your skin. The taste in your mouth. The clinging of your clothes to your body. The sounds around you.
Step 5: Return
After another minute or so, take a long deep breath, and gently return to whatever you were doing.
Done in the moment, this simple exercise will give you a nice burst of composure and calm. Done over time, (each day, for longer and longer periods) this exercise will change the relationship you have with the stressors in your mind.
In this sense, calm is perhaps better understood not as an emotion, but as a perspective. And we know where we’d rather weather the storm.
If you’re feeling burnt out, consider purchasing the Balanced Set of Intangible Goods - containing a bag of Chill, a bag of Connection, and a bar of Reassurance, all for a greater sense of balance and calm.