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The Best Exercise for Distress

I’m not afraid to admit that in the past, I was a person who’d be very reactive to life’s slightest inconveniences. For example, I would ride people’s asses if they’re driving too slowly because they didn’t know I was in a hurry. I would also become very irritable and reactive when I was feeling overwhelmed by too many things and would lash out on those near me. This would then lead to me placing blame on the individual or thing that caused my emotional distress. Completely avoiding responsibilities for my reactions because I thought that others were causing it, not me.

Boy was this a super an unhealthy way of responding to my distress. It wasn’t until I was able to let go of the things I couldn’t control and began to focus on the things I could control, which were the skills of handling my distress.

My breaking point was about 5 years ago when I forgot my charger at my sister’s home. My reaction to that situation was very unhealthy because I had an outburst of anger and rage. At the time I watched my partners reaction to my behavior, which helped me understand that this was not a healthy way of coping. It’s normal and healthy to feel emotions, but the behavior that follows it should be healthy, not destructive.

Realizing that I was dealing with distress and emotions in an unhealthy way, I made a choice to ask for help with understanding these emotions with healthier behaviors. It was learning new skills and tools to improve my health that then enhanced my life. By taking a moment to pause and focus on my breathing I was then able to think more clearly when I would feel reactive.

What’s s distress?

Distress is when stress is severe, prolonged, or both. Stress is a less intense feeling and is a healthy part of life. Distress is unhealthy because it doesn’t reduce its impact on the body which determines how you feel, which then alters your behavior. Your behavior (what you do) then begins to find ways to alleviate these feelings by any means, such as bursts of anger, shallow breathing, tension throughout the body, high alert, and a lot of other discomforting feelings.

Negative impact of distress

Distress is real and needs to be addressed as if it’s a real issue because it has some serious health consequences if it’s not managed. Stress can lead to issues with high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, chemical dependency, mental illness, and other side effects. Your thoughts can become unclear and somewhat destructive, which can lead to behaviors that you may not find healthy such as over/undereating, angry outbursts, violent thoughts/actions, clenching jaw or other areas in the body, etc.

What causes distress?

Honestly, a bunch of different shit. It’s something that you need to explore for yourself. I can help you by giving examples of what has led to my own, but everyone is different. Only you can answer the question of why you’re feeling distressed about your current situations. For me, it was struggling with undiagnosed ADHD & CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) which has significantly been improved through therapy, medication, behavior changes, and educating myself on my illnesses and how to live a healthy life after these discoveries.

Other common causes:

- Trauma

- Death of a loved one (pet, friend, partner, family)

- Divorce

- Illness

- Financial difficulties

- Moving

- Difficulty with time management and organization

- Anxiety

- Depression

How does it feel?

Super shitty. There’s no one way of how to describe what this may feel like because everyone is different, but we all feel the same emotions. Our bodies each have their own unique way of expressing the distress we’re physically feeling. This could mean you get muscle tension, clench your jaw, talk faster, move very rapidly, feel irritable, overwhelmed, short breathes, tight fists, sweating porously, body shakes, and many more things.

What to do about it?

Begin by checking your mental health, speaking to a therapist or your doctor about therapy and medication is a great starting point. Having someone to help guide you through what are the underlying issues, helps with resolving the issue at hand. But, as a real person I understand that sometimes you may not have the insurance, financials, emotional support, encouragement to do the hard things. If you’re in the category of not having those resources available to you at this time, here’s an exercise that helped me.

Try this exercise

As mentioned above, it’s different for everyone else and we never really know what someone is feeling unless they tell us. Even then we only have an idea of how they’re feeling, we can never truly feel another person’s emotions. In order to help begin to identify what your distress may feel like, begin to explore your physical sensations by trying this exercise.

1. Using a pen and paper write down the most current situation that made you feel annoyed/stressed/irritated/upset/overwhelmed, whichever emotion you can most recently recall and closely identify what you believe is your distress.

2. Close your eyes and retell the story you experienced and sit still while feeling what sensations you’re physically feeling in your body. Write down where you were physically feeling your emotions. (shaky hands, tight forearms, sweaty armpits)

3. Write down the thought you are having and what story you’re creating with it.

4. Close your eyes, retell the story, identify how you felt, feel where that emotion goes physically, but this time pause at the moment you’re feeling your distress. The moment leading to and starting your distress is where this exercise is helpful.

5. Start the exercise by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth, inhale through the nose at three count, pause for a one count, breathe out at a five count, take 3-5 breathes.


Real example

1. On my way to Hyvee there was a slow driver in front of me and I began to feel impatient because I was in a rush to get to the store, so I could get home at a decent time to make supper.

2. My chest got bigger and tighter. My hands started getting shaky and my forearms tightened up. I started getting tension all along my spine.

3. The person in front of me is driving too slow!! Why are they driving so fucking slow? I’m in a rush and they’re the ones in my way that is making me feel irritated and annoyed.

4. I was on my way to Hyvee and I was in a rush to get there. On my way there I was behind a car who was driving the speed limit, but my distress told me that they were driving too slow. Which then caused me to feel impatient and irritated because my body started to tell me this by getting shorter breathes, tighter chest, tension in my back, tight hands & forearms.

5. After taking three breathes and changing the story I was telling, I was able to relax and think more clearly about what I could do different in this situation.

6. I’m not able to control how fast the other driver is going, I’m not in control of my feelings, and this person isn’t doing this on purpose to punish me. What I do have control of is my breathing and the choices I choose to make on how I want to react to this situation. Instead of doing what I had always done, be an asshole, I decided to let it go. I turned up my music to vent out my irritation and jammed out.

Why this might help

When you’re able to understand what you’re thinking, when you’re feeling distress, you’ll then be able to make a better choice for your health.

The reason is because your brain produces a lot of chemicals into your body and then begins to disrupt your behavior. This is important because when your breathing becomes impaired your brain gets all fucky because you turned on its autonomic system, specifically the sympathetic nervous system. That’s fancy talk for your fight or flight response, which is caused by distress or danger.

To turn it off you’ll need to bring it back to the parasympathetic state, which is your relax and chill mode. One of the best ways to activate this system is by controlling your breathing with the breathing exercise mentioned above.

When you can control your reactions to your thoughts and feelings with your breathing and healthy thinking, you’ll be able to manage your stress in a better way.

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