Secure Your Oxygen Mask First

As you may know, my son attends East High School in Denver. This has been a challenging year for the East community, as it has been for many schools as our children struggle to deal with the impacts of the pandemic, school violence, political turmoil and the like. In that way, my son’s school is, frustratingly, not unique. The last several weeks have brought these issues into our home as we try and help him cope with these realities and traumas. He, like many of his peers, is dealing with this via a mix of tactics like distraction and a fair degree of shutting down, which breaks my heart. 

During times like these, we want to be there for our loved ones, but sometimes that comes at our own expense. As I try to help my son navigate uncharted territory, I have to remind myself to slow down and take care of myself, so that I have more to give. Flight attendants often express this by telling parents to secure their own oxygen mask first. If we don’t, we won’t be able to care for others. 

If I’ve learned one thing during my time on this earth, it’s that our greatest lessons often come from our greatest struggles. Hopefully, some of what I have learned through my own experiences can be of some help to the Create Calm community. To that end, my intention with this blog post is to provide simple strategies to implement when it feels like everything is out of your control. All of these tools are completely free. My suggestion to you is that you fill your toolbox now, so that when a crisis hits (and it will, simply because it is part of the human experience) you can choose the tools that feel right in the moment to help you create calm when you need it most. 

  1. Breathwork. When we are stressed, our breath becomes shallow and irregular. This can prolong feelings of anxiety.  Learning to control our breath is one of the most effective ways to get ourselves out of our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze/fawn) and into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relax). There are many ways to do this, but one of the most effective techniques is called “Box Breathing.” This technique is used by Navy Seals in high-stress situations to aid in stress management. Envision drawing a box as you inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and then hold the empty breath for a count of four. Repeat this as many times as needed, or until you feel calm.
  2. Journal. Several studies have shown that journaling about your feelings can not only help you process complex emotions, but also reduces worry and frees up resources in your brain that can be used for other tasks. Journaling has also been shown to strengthen our immune system and improve our emotional intelligence. Furthermore, if you really want to take control of your mind, dedicate a few minutes to focus specifically on gratitude. Noticing what is going well in your life has tremendous benefits on our overall well-being. 
  3. Music. If you are struggling to shift your mood (or the mood in your home), put on some uplifting music that you love. Making music is even better. Active music making has been shown to positively affect neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which influence mood. Singing in particular can help regulate breath, thus lowering cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. It’s unbelievably effective!
  4. Shaking and dancing. Did you know that most animals relieve their stress by shaking? According to Dr. James Gordon of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, 5-6 minutes of shaking and dancing helps us move through and beyond trauma by balancing out the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. So, once you put on your favorite, uplifting music, move your body and let it all out! 
  5. Move. According to the National Institute on Health (NIH), exercise reduces feelings of depression and stress, increases your energy level, improves sleep, and enhances your mood and overall well-being. Movement of any kind will also help transition your body out of the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. You don’t necessarily need to run a marathon or do a rigorous workout in order to reap these benefits. The best workout is the one you enjoy the most.
  6. Shinkrin-yoku (Forest Bathing). When my children were little, we used to take “listening walks,” where we’d simply notice all of the sounds we heard as we strolled through the neighborhood. The Japanese have a similar practice called “Shinkrin-yoku,” also referred to as “forest bathing,” which is the practice of allowing nature to wash over all five senses. If you are struggling to stay calm, consider heading to the hills to take a walk in nature. If a trip to the mountains is not accessible, simply find a nearby park or even patch of grass and a tree. Forest bathing can reduce stress levels significantly, leading to better mood, energy, and sleep. It’s also been shown to improve immune function. 
  7. Nourish. During times of high stress, it’s important to be more mindful of what we put into our bodies. Steering clear of stimulants of all kinds (sugar, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate) is just good common sense. Instead of focusing on restriction, simply be mindful of what you are consuming, and try to keep stimulants to a minimum. Cultivate a “what can I add” mindset, and aim to incorporate whole foods that nourish your body and mind. This can be challenging for a lot of people (“stress eating” is a real thing!), so be gentle with yourself. Choose foods that you love, but just be sure that they love you back!
  8. Mantras. When we are really struggling with a stressful situation, a grounding thought to pull us through the moment can be helpful. One of my favorite mantras is, “get out of your head and into your body.” Rather than ruminating on a situation I cannot control, I gently shift my focus to my body, and notice where I’m holding tension. I then try to breathe into that area, allowing the breath to help release the tension. 
  9. Earthing. Earthing, also known as grounding, is a therapeutic practice that focuses on  realigning the body’s electrical energy by connecting the body to the earth’s electrical charges. While the benefits of earthing are still being explored, throughout history, indigenous cultures have touted the healing benefits of earthing. Earthing is thought to lower stress, reduce inflammation, and promote an overall sense of well-being. As the weather warms up, simply slip your shoes off and stroll through the grass. Or better yet, lay down in the grass and allow your entire body to relax into the earth!
  10. Tub. Taking a warm tub can be deeply soothing, and help release tension in the body. Try adding two cups of epsom salts and a drop or two of lavender oil to warm bath water. If you are doing this at bedtime, just be sure to rinse off with cool water to lower your body temperature before going to sleep. 

My hope is that you choose one or two (or more!) strategies that are useful and that you can easily implement in your everyday life. It’s critical that we begin to normalize taking care of ourselves, as the world around us is rarely calm. If we want to show up as the highest version of ourselves, whether in times of crisis or calm, we must do the work, so that we have more to give to our loved ones and our community. As the wise Thích Nhất Hạnh once said, “Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself – if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself – it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice.”

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