This week’s guest blog comes from Carol Spar, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and geropsychology specialist.

To begin with an obvious statement: life is full of challenges.

One particular challenge is when we have to deal with stress and, in the field of psychology, “stress” has a very specific definition. A stressful situation is one that is both unpleasant and, for the moment, inescapable.

Being brought to a standstill on a highway due to a traffic jam while heading to the airport to catch a flight is stressful. Caring for a family member experiencing serious health issues is stressful.

And that distressful state can manifest as physical tension in our body and as unpleasant thoughts in our mind. But there are two tools that we each always have available to help us tolerate the stress. We breathe and we think; and therein are the tools.

We are always breathing. And our breath can be short and shallow and rapid, or it can be held, or it can be long, deep and slow. When we inhale slowly through our nose to a count of 3, and then hold for a count of 3, and then slowly exhale through our mouth for a count of 3, our body naturally begins to relax. If we do these 3 steps, each for a count of 3, and for 3 times in a row, then we can lessen the tension in our body. A simple mnemonic is ”Breathe-By-3” and we can “Breathe-by-3” anytime and anywhere; even without others being aware.

And we are always thinking. And we can think without thinking about it; and we can think with some self-observation, such as “Oh, listen to what I am saying to myself.”; and we can choose to direct our thoughts, from “I’m going to Breathe-By-3.” to “I’m now choosing to remind
myself of a positive aspect of this situation.”

Of course, the use of these two tools will not change the stressful situation. The traffic jam will not melt away; our family member will not suddenly heal. But we will be better able to bear it.

Now, of course, over time, the sense of distress will, again, intensify as that is human nature.

But these two tools can be seen as sails deployed to help our small boat stay on course to the dock on the shore in the face of winds that are blowing us a bit to the north or to the south of where we want to go. Choosing to control our breathing and choosing to direct our thoughts can correct our course in the moment and help us shift from feeling trapped to feeling that we have some self-agency. And while this next statement is paradoxical, it is also true: The benefit of using these two tools will not last, but these two tools can always work.

— Carol Spar, PsyD