Four tips for stressful moments

I went to the dentist yesterday.  Yay me!  I'd put it off for the better part of two years and eventually decided that I could procrastinate no longer. No dental drama, just my mother's voice lingering somewhere in my mind, reminding me of the importance of regular dental visits.  Daughter's guilt, shall we say?

I'm not an anxious person by any means but there is nothing like having a couple of people with sharp implements, a noisy suction machine that finds every sensitive spot on your gums and some electrical grinding tool poking around in your mouth to get the heart rate going.  I knew I was in for at least 30 minutes of this and that there could be a fair bit of discomfort, if not pain, involved so I decided it was time to practise a few relaxation techniques. I also decided that this might be a good opportunity to share some of these tips with you, as my second instalment for Mental Health Week.  

So here are my four top tips for dealing with stressful moments in order to keep yourself mentally healthy:

  1. Remember to breathe.  Sounds a little silly.  How can one forget to breathe?  But pay attention the next time you're dealing with something stressful or difficult.  Are you holding your breath?  I know I do, and I certainly was in the dentist chair yesterday until I noticed and made a conscious effort to breath out and then in again, and then out and then in again.  Breathing is, as you'd know, important for all kind of bodily functions and this includes allowing your muscles to relax.  There are all kinds of clever breathing techniques used for relaxation that you can investigate here and here but at the very least, just make sure that you are continuing to breathe during your stressful moment.
  2. Be on the lookout for muscle tension.  Even if you are breathing in and out as your should you may well still be tensing different muscles in your body when you're stressed.  This is a normal response.  It's your body's way or preparing to flee when it's feeling under threat.  But it's not really helpful in most circumstances and if it stays that way for too long things get sore and tired and you can end up in a lot more discomfort later on.  Also, being tense tends to exacerbate our experience of pain so it's not good for the dentist chair or any other kind of possibly painful procedure.  So when you're faced with a stressful situation, do a quick mental scan from your top to your toes, looking out for the parts of you that you might be tensing up.  For me, it's almost always my neck and my shoulders which end up around my ears if I don't watch out. While lying in the dentist's chair I also discovered that I had my hands gripped together so tight that I was risking blood loss.  Notice the tense bits and let them relax.
  3. Distract yourself. I wrote yesterday (here if you missed it) about the importance of reducing your distractions and being in the moment, but that was in the context of pleasurable experiences.  Being in the dentist's chair, or dealing with any other similarly stressful moment, is not the time and place for being in the moment.  Distraction in these cases can be good.  You kind of want your mind as far from your body as possible - unless it's really required to focus keenly on what's going on like a difficult driving manoeuvre or abseiling down a steep cliff.  Music can be a great distraction as can thinking about something pleasurable. Even thinking about your to-do list or dinner plans can be helpful.  I mentally drafted this article as a good distraction and, as it turns out, a productive way to use the time.
  4. Repeat. Despite your best efforts to enact steps one to three, you will inevitably find your attention drawn back to the stressful situation you find yourself in, your muscles will tense and you may find that you've stopped breathing again.  This is when you need to bring your awareness back to your body and what's going on, repeat the steps again, and then let the mind wander.  It worked for me.  I hope it works for you.