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Stress - Ways to Manage It

Death, divorce, or disease may top the list of major stressors, but a pileup of minor hassles can be just as stressful.  Those petty annoyances and irritations - like waiting in line, getting overcharged by the dry cleaner, or tripping over your kid's skateboard for the hundredth time - can leave you tense or frustrated. But like death and taxes, minor hassles are equally impossible to avoid.

What you need are ways to buffer their impact.  One survey found that people most frequently shield themselves against these kinds of stresses by:

  • Sharing their feelings with a spouse or romantic partner.
  • Sharing their feelings with friends.
  • Completing a task that gives them satisfaction.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Maintaining good health.
  • To further offset the emotional damage wrought by minor hassles, think of things that are going right. Ask yourself:
  • Did you hear any good news today?
  • Did you arrive anywhere on time - or earlier than expected?
  • Did anything you were expecting to receive arrive on time?
  • Did anyone pay you a compliment?

Focusing on the positive in this way is good psychological protection against the effects of chronic stress.  

Five Simple Ways to Reduce Stress

Sometimes stress is subtle.  But very often, stress practically hits you in the face.  When that happens, practice these easy techniques.

  • Get some physical exercise.  A quick walk around the block frees your mind from what's bugging you, gets your blood circulating, and boosts flagging energy levels.  Regular exercise - with a green light from your doctor - is even better.
  • Take a warm bath or shower, which tends to relax tense muscles and calm nerves.
  • Talk over your troubles with a friend, relative, or professional counselor.  A "sympathetic other" can sometimes help you to see a problem more clearly - or help you think of practical solutions.
  • Count to ten when you're so upset you want to scream. It buys you time, so you can reflect on what's bothering you and calm down.
  • Pour yourself a cup of warm herbal tea.  Sip it slowly and savor its soothing warmth and aroma.

"Rehearse" For Stressful Events

If you've ever mentally rehearsed a speech before you gave it, you may already have some idea of how advance playacting can help you prepare for stressful situations.  (Athletes, musicians, salespeople, and actors do it all the time.)  The idea is to imagine yourself feeling calm and confident in an otherwise stressful situation, so you can relax more easily when the situation arises. Here's how it's done.

  • Close your eyes and unwind, releasing every bit of muscular tension your body has accumulated.
  • For a minute or two, concentrate on simply feeling relaxed.
  • For the next minute or so, think of yourself actually doing whatever you're practicing for, rather than observing yourself doing it.
  • Concentrate again on feelings of calmness.
  • Visualize the event once again, and re-create as many details as possible.  (What is the setting?  What are you wearing?  Who else is present?)
  • Imagine yourself continuing to feel calm as you successfully handle the anticipated situation.
  • Imagine a positive outcome - your boss congratulating you on a job well done, your spouse volunteering to pitch in around the house, and so forth.

Use this technique to prepare for any stressful situation - your performance review, a confrontation with your spouse, or other tense occasion.  Practice twice a day for 5 minutes each time (preferably when you first wake up in the morning and when you're ready to go to sleep at night).  Imagining that you're confident and successful increases the likelihood that you will be confident and successful in real life, because you're creating new mental pictures of yourself.  After practicing regularly for a few weeks to prepare for various events, you'll be able to relax when the real situations occur.

How To Relax, Muscle by Muscle

Contradictory as it may sound, you can learn a lot about relaxation from tension.  By alternately tensing and relaxing your muscles, group by group, you can induce a wonderful sense of head-to-toe relaxation.

Dubbed Progressive Deep Muscle Relaxation by Edmund Jacobson, M.D., who invented the technique, this exercise requires only a few minutes to master and is an efficient way to release accumulated tension.  (It's often called Progressive Relaxation, for short.)  Here's how to perform Progressive Relaxation.

  • Sit in a chair and close your eyes.  Rest your forearms on the sides of the chair, palms downward.
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths.
  • Concentrate on whatever muscle tension you may be feeling, but do nothing about it.
  • Command yourself to "tense" and tighten a muscle group for 5 seconds, then tell yourself to "relax" and let the tension dissolve for 30 seconds.  Follow this sequence for each body part listed below.
    • Bend both arms at the elbows and wrists.  Make a fist with each hand.  Relax.
    • Press your back against the chair.  Relax.
    • Tighten your abdomen.  Relax.
    • Lift and extend your lower legs.  Relax.
    • Tighten your jaw.  Relax.
    • Squinch your eyes.  Relax.
    • Tuck your chin against your chest.  Relax.
  •  Continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Concentrate on the overall sensation of relaxation and allow your body to go limp like a rag doll.  Let your head and shoulders drop forward.
  • Imagine you feel energizing warmth flowing through your body.
  • Slowly open your eyes and not how refreshed you feel.

NOTE:  Don't hold your breath during the tensing phase, and don't tighten any region of the body that's weak or injured.

Laugh Your Cares Away

Laughter's medicinal powers have been recognized for centuries.  The ancient Greeks believed laughter was an essential part of the healing process.  And studies now show that laughter can promote better blood circulation, stimulate digestion, lower blood pressure, and prompt the brain to release endorphins and other compounds that reduce pain.  So don't be surprised if some day you hear your doctor say, "Take two aspirins and call me with a joke in the morning."  To get your healthful daily ration of giggles and guffaws:

  • Pretend you're viewing your surroundings through the lens of "Candid Camera."  Focus on silly and offbeat things people do.  This helps you lighten up and brightens your outlook.
  • Take some time each day to read or listen to something funny - the comics or a taped comedian, for example.
  • Don't just smile - laugh out loud.
  • When confronted by a rude salesperson or an overbearing co-worker, imagine them wearing nothing but a diaper - they'll seem less intimidating.
  • Try to incorporate good-natured humor in meetings, memos, and conversations.  Humor helps to develop trust, sell ideas, and strengthen relationships.
  • Always keep humor upbeat and positive.  Laughter generated at someone else's expense is counterproductive.
  • Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself.
  • And remember, he (or she) who laughs, lasts.

Just Say No to Stressful Thoughts

When nagging thoughts or worries stand in the way of feeling good, a technique called thought stopping is an effective way to eradicate them.  The trick is to recognize negative thoughts, then reduce their impact.

Here's an example:  You're so distressed by a petty remark a co-worker makes, you can't concentrate on anything else, and you dwell on it for hours.  Here's what you do.

  • Isolate the stressful thought.
  • Close your eyes and focus on it briefly.
  • Count to three.
  • Shout "Stop!" (Or, if others are in earshot, imagine a stop sign, a flashing red light, or the word "stop" in bold letters.)
  • If the thought's still present, repeat steps 3 to 5.
  • Resume normal activity, feeling better.

You can use this technique anytime you find yourself obsessed with negative thoughts.  (If work problems dominate your thoughts, substitute an "off duty" sign for the stop sign in the exercise described above.) 

From "A Year of Health Hints"
by Don R. Powell, Ph.D.