Everyone, every day, everywhere, is facing heightening levels of stress, and struggling to diminish the effects. The key to alleviating stress is to disarm it before it accumulates.
Accessing resources. Resources are healthy activities and thoughts that calm us from the inside and restore our equilibrium, so that we can respond to disruptive events effectively.
The most famous of resources in mental health literature is exercise. Other popular and effective resources are connecting with a good friend, indulging in a shower, sipping a hot drink, escaping for some fresh air, or taking a nap. Some very powerful resources tap into the creative mind: writing, music, arts, crafts, and spirituality. Building these resources into your daily life can drastically alter your ability to handle stress as it comes.
What happens when those favorite resources are inaccessible? If you are trying to keep pace in a high-pressured business consultation, your anxiety is rising on a crowded bus, or you’re facing a child’s gargantuan tantrum in the local park and your infant is screaming hungry… what resources are available then?
Earth, Water, Air, and Fire
The four classical elements are channels through which we make contact with the present moment reality, and engage our uniquely human mind – a mind capable of creativity, of connecting to others, of faith and spirituality. I offer you these four elements as resources in moments of stress, panic, fear, or any other overwhelming experience.
Earth: Grounding yourself in the present. To tap into Earth as a resource, take a moment to place both feet on the ground, to really feel the stability of Earth beneath you. Perhaps stomp your feet or wiggle your toes in order to heighten your awareness. You might also ground yourself by squeezing a stress ball, or playing with clay or kinetic sand that you carry around with you.
Water: Calm and soothe the nervous system. Saliva production is part of the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, and it is something you can produce consciously – either by imagining a tasty food, sipping a drink, or simply practicing making more saliva. When it’s available, you might gently rinse your hands or splash your face to connect with Water as a resource.
Air: Breathing for strength, balance, and centering. When anxious, we stop breathing full breaths, or even attempt to hold the breath. Pause to take three or four deeper, slower, breaths all the way into your stomach, and then take care to breathe all the way out. This way, you will make room for fresher, more energizing air. This is a simple and highly effective way to resource yourself with Air.
Fire: Firing of creativity, warming your body. The stress hormones that accompany anxiety direct circulation away from your extremities. They also activate the limbic system in the brain – and disengage the prefrontal cortex. You can reverse this process. Warm your body – with a quick rub of your hands, bicycling your knees, or tensing and releasing your muscles. Alternatively, re-engage your prefrontal cortex. You can do this by imagining your favorite calm place in all its vivid details, counting backwards from 17 (any number, really), or finding ten objects of the same color in the space around you.
As you utilize these resources, they will become more accessible, and more automatic. Your ability to respond effectively to overwhelming circumstances will increase. Stressors throughout the day will no longer accumulate. Your sense of well-being will expand.