Someone steals your parking spot. Your mind draws a blank before a big interview. Your kids keep interrupting you while you’re on an important call. You encounter stress every day, often without even realizing it. Whether big or small, these moments can cause your body to release hormones that put you into fight or flight mode, which affects the way you think and act. You feel tense, your heart races, and you’re on the verge of lashing out — or melting down.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Staying resilient in the face of stress often boils down to microdecisions, or small choices you make every day. These tiny mental and physical shifts can have a big impact on your mood and set the tone for the rest of your day. “With a microdecision, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to think about how you really want to react,” explains Ashley Karpinski, a psychotherapist and lead business consultant for Aetna’s Behavioral Health Strategy and Innovation.
Here are five simple but powerful microdecisions you can make today that will help manage stress, increase resiliency and provide mental clarity.
When you’re feeling stressed, your body tends to tighten or your posture shifts. You may start to grind your teeth or hunch your shoulders. But making a conscious choice to release physical tension allows you to simultaneously let go of negative feelings. In fact, studies have found that even something as simple as sitting upright can help you maintain self-esteem and reduce negative moods.
There are other small physical changes you can also make to relax the body and mind. Examples include smiling, unclenching your jaw, dropping the tongue from the roof of your mouth, lowering your shoulders, and adopting an open and relaxed posture. Taking the time to do a quick posture check throughout the day can help to relieve stress you may not even realize you have.
Allow yourself time every day to hit the pause button. Walk to a quiet space to gather your thoughts. Take a few minutes to focus on something that brings you joy, such as reading a favorite affirmation bookmarked on your phone, listening to a relaxing song or looking at a picture of a loved one. If you can’t get away, try closing your eyes for a moment to regroup, Karpinski suggests. The self-imposed “time out” will help clear your mind and promote relaxation. It can also help to put a stressful situation into perspective.
Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, can help calm your mood and make you more aware of your actions. Even just a few deep breaths will help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of conserving your energy, slowing down your heart rate and reducing tension in your muscles. This is important because the breaths will relax you, says Andy Lee, former chief mindfulness officer at Aetna.
Try counting for 10 seconds while you breathe in and out, recognizing each breath as you take it. “If we can slow our breathing down, we can slow our brain processing down and allow our bodies time to react,” adds Karpinski. Deep breathing can be helpful when stress hits hard, but it’s also a technique that can help you relax on a daily basis.
Stress can sneak up on you, which makes it difficult to recognize. Experts agree that taking note of your body’s reaction to stress can help you manage it more effectively in the future. The next time you’re starting to feel tense, observe what happens. Do you tap your foot under your desk? Do you get impatient and interrupt people? Does your chest tighten or your stomach ache? You can also ask a loved one what they’ve noticed about how you react to stress.
Being mindful of your cues can help you recognize when you’re stressed and help you avoid making a larger decision that could have negative consequences. “Stress handicaps your brain and your IQ drops 10 points,” Lee points out. “Stressful moments, where emotions are running high, are probably not the best times to respond and make a major decision.”
Everyone feels anxious or tense at times. But you may be able to better manage small, stressful events by reframing them as opportunities to build resiliency or as practice for handling something larger and more serious. Such shifts in thinking can lower the impact a heated moment has on your overall mood. “We talk about building immunity with our physical health, where you expose yourself to different things so that your body can fight it the next time it faces it,” says Karpinski. “The same thing happens when you're in distress. We have to be able to pull on some tools that help us regain composure.”
Making these five small choices can often mean the difference between remaining upbeat or feeling distressed during a difficult moment. “Microdecisions allow you to go from reacting to responding,” Lee says. “Reacting is instinctive or subconscious or out of your control. Responding is taking a moment, assessing your own internal state, assessing the situation and then acting with intention.”
If you find that you’re consistently under stress and having a hard time managing it, you may want to consider talking to a trained professional. If you’re an Aetna member, your plan may include Resources For Living, which provides you and members of your household with 24/7 access to emotional support and daily life assistance at no additional cost.
Christina Joseph Robinson is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.
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