Jill Lillard, of Lifesong for Growth & Wellness, has some exercises for improving your mental health during Stress Awareness Month.

Ever feel like the stress of life is blowing you away? Relationships, jobs, or obstacles can get in the path of your goals. Pressure all around you blows like a wind, and you can feel it. As the wind howls, you might feel tightness in your chest, or your stomach may flip. Your body compensates, releasing chemicals to put you in survival mode — instinctively, you fight or flee.

However, when false alarms go off or your body stays in that mode too long, your chemistry is rewired in a way that depletes you and leaves you functioning at a less than optimal level.

An emotional storm may just be a passing windy day — or it may be a tsunami. Learning techniques to stay grounded in small details makes it easier to remain planted when the winds are most threatening. Staying grounded — simply standing in a peaceful, quiet, and trusting place — is often the best way to weather a storm. The question is: How do you move from clenched fists and a racing heart to this epic vision?  

Start with four mental images that will unlock a new choreography, of sorts. When implemented as a lifestyle, these techniques will leave you standing strong, rested, and centered even through the strongest of winds. The steps are simple and few, but they aren’t natural, so they will take time to master. They are: Read the Memo, Become the Tree, Assess the Plate, and Make a Plan.  

Memo, tree, plate, calendar. If you can see it, you are ready to learn.

Read the Memo

When you feel stress coming, imagine that someone is handing you a sticky note. You look at the memo and see a single word or short phrase scribbled on the front. It might say any number of things: keyed up, irritable, weary, paralyzed, overwhelmed. We don’t like these memos. We certainly don’t want them to describe us, but if we look at them with a new set of eyes, we can see they’re telling us about something we need. Ignore these notes and you could crash and burn. Burying our feelings doesn’t make them go away; likewise, acknowledging an emotion doesn’t give it power to run your life. To see and read the memo means:

We acknowledge that feelings are legitimate and wellsprings of information.  

We name our feelings. Putting words to our feelings is a proven strategy to calm the brain, according to UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb.

We find the need at the root of our feeling. Exploring unmet needs helps us clarify our values and alerts us to new solutions for our life. In his book “Nonviolent Communication,” Dr. Marshall Rosenberg provides a feeling and needs inventory that can help you in this process.

Become the Tree

Now that you have acknowledged you have feelings, named them, and unearthed the need, stand still. Physically, you may need to remove yourself from a situation, or you may simply stop talking, start breathing, and start tuning in to something different altogether. This breaking is what I refer to when I say “Become the tree.” When something doesn’t feel right, I step away, take some deep breaths, and think of a tall oak tree. I like to think I’m the tree. The wind howls and blows, but I stand, planted strong. I am not threatened by what is blowing around me because I know my roots are deep and I am planted. I imagine the roots going deep into the earth. I imagine a water source feeding the roots. I hear wind howling, see rain beating, I even feel my branches blow. But as I wait, I know the sun always comes back.

Visualization and imagery are proven methods to simulate experiences for yourself and access emotions, setting you up for changed behaviors. When you have an image with personal symbolism, you are able to transition your mind and emotions on a deep level. I used the tree, but you can pick any image from nature as your activator.  

Once you get the memo that something is off, you’re already putting on the brakes. You are slowing things down so you can read the memo and not get caught up in the wind. Reading the memo and being the tree may happen in tandem.  

Assess the Plate

Assessing the plate involves acceptance and organization. Ask yourself what is happening now and what can be done. Often, stress is fear that something unwanted might happen. We become triggered in situations because of the past and future. Yet, as human beings we are called and equipped to only live in the present. Assessing what actually is happening is key. If you imagine your plate, ask yourself what’s on that plate today — what can you do right now? Focusing your energy on the present is an empowering and efficient use of energy.

Make a Plan

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. Planning daily relaxing disciplines in your life will increase the likelihood of implementing the four concepts here. For instance, when assessing the plate, we talk about living in the here and now by assessing what is and what is not happening. This sounds promising, but it may be difficult for you to do. Incorporating “here and now” techniques such as breathing, grounding, gratitude, and visualization are all great practices to help you slow down and keep your body and mind connected when the winds blow all around you. Phone apps are making it easier than ever to learn and implement these skills in your life — I recommend Calm, Smiling Mind, and Headspace.

Equipping yourself to deal with life’s stress is committing yourself to a new way of thinking and living. When we learn how to keep our minds and bodies connected, gain awareness of our experiences and reactions, and find new ways to think about and experience life, we are engaged in a journey of growth. Remembering the images of the memo, tree, plate, and planner can help you access some of these concepts, and the next time the wind blows, you may find that you are still standing strong.  

Jill M. Lillard, MA LPC, is a managing partner and therapist at Lifesong for Growth & Wellness. www.findyourlifesong.com