• Tracy Jarvis

(ACCESS) Coping With Stress in Our Changing World: Six Key Strategies

For therapists and our clients, it may feel as though the whole world is out of balance at the moment, let alone our nervous systems. How can we optimise our wellbeing at a time of such unprecedented stress? To mark the start of National Stress Awareness Month, Tracy Jarvis, Director of PESI UK and a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and neuroscience, shares her ‘ACCESS’ acronym to help us cope, reduce stress and regulate our nervous systems.

We now know that as an evolutionary development, human beings are wired to attach. Yet, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are now rightly being told to social distance and self-isolate. It’s like being told to turn left, then turn right at exactly the same time – which way do you turn first, which way do you prioritise? Confusing, isn’t it?

This blend of our innate impulse to attach to others, with our survival impulse to avoid and distance from others, is very confusing and contradictory for our nervous system. It can cause stress and overwhelm and have a negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Stress can be defined as a set of internal or external conditions that move an individual’s state out of balance and away from emotional regulation and equilibrium. Some people might describe this as being or feeling under too much mental and emotional pressure or subsequently feeling that they are not able to cope.

Right now, given the global crisis, it is totally normal to be experiencing stress, hypervigilance and the plethora of feelings that arise when living through uncertain and challenging times. That being said, we can prioritise but modify the needs of our nervous system in a way that doesn’t put us or others at greater risk of contagion. When we prioritise our nervous system needs, it settles, reduces stress and helps move us in the direction of safety, calm and connection.

Here are six helpful strategies to optimise wellbeing in these times. You can remember or teach them to your clients with the acronym ACCESS (Awareness, Connection, Competencies, Exercise, Structure, Spirituality).

‘ACCESS’: Six key strategies for coping and managing stress

1 Awareness

Engage in a daily practice of noticing your thoughts, noticing your body and noticing your habits and behaviours. For example, if you notice that your mind and body are stressed out or you are ruminating or overthinking, take time to mediate or do exercises that bring you some kind of relief. If social media or internet use is stressing you out, make a decision to cut back on screen time.

The key here is just to notice, interrupt the pattern and experiment with what makes your nervous system feel more comfortable rather than uncomfortable.

2 Connection

Connection and co-regulation are of utmost significance in these times. This is our most important need. Unfortunately, it is also the need that we have to most modify because of social distancing and self-isolation.

Research suggests that seeing someone’s face or hearing someone’s voice is more regulatory in effect than email or text communication, and offers greater co-regulation. So take time to connect with friends, family and others a lot more than usual on video chat and phone, rather than by email and text message.

Be intentional with your connection and remember to laugh – be playful as well as talking about your feelings and your concerns.

3 Competencies

Engage in both left brain activities (reading, writing, puzzle solving, thinking, analysing) and right brain activities (playing, singing, making art, drawing, writing poetry, playing music).

Doing things that you enjoy and that you feel competent in will help light up positive neural networks in your system and contribute to a feeling of positivity. Engaging in these activities also helps light up the prefrontal cortex and thereby reduces amygdala activation, which calms the nervous system.

4 Exercise

According to research, exercise and movement have a significant impact on stress reduction through calming the amygdala (which plays a key role in emotion-processing) and increasing endorphins. It also increases our immunity.

5 Structure

Having a predictable schedule gives an individual a sense of predictability, which can act as an anchor for one’s nervous system in uncertain times.

6 Spirituality  

Faith, spirituality or believing in something greater than the self can have a positive impact on mental health. Practices like these can generate optimism, provide a sense of purpose, connect people with communities for co-regulation, safety and connection, create invaluable support systems and help us relinquish control. All these things lead to stress reduction.