The Objective of Regaining Control
Underlying most stress is the feeling of lack of control. If we can find some way to regain control, at least to some degree, we will find our stress decrease significantly. Some techniques for regaining control that we might not automatically think of include taking a break, delegating and setting limits.
Some people think of these techniques as relinquishing control, but in fact they allow us to refocus and accomplish more than if we were to try to take care of everything ourselves.
The Objective of Stress Reduction
The stress reduction techniques on the following pages have proven useful for many people. Their utility centers on the fact that it is impossible to be tense and relaxed at the same time.
It is also important to remember that the techniques that will work best for us are those that address the ways in which we personally manifest stress (e.g., a muscle relaxation technique will be most useful for those who experience stress as tension in the muscles).
Stress Reducing Behaviors
Behaviors that are optimal for stress reduction include:
- Direct action
- Support seeking
- Situation mastery
- Time management
Behaviors that lead to burnout include:
- Ceaseless striving
There are also optimal thoughts for stress reduction, including potentiality/ability to make change.
For instance, those who can think to themselves: “I can do this,” or “This is too much, I need to ease off or I’ll get stressed out,” have a much greater likelihood of avoiding distress than those who might think: “I can’t,” or “I have to get everything done even though it’s killing me.“
Two Things About Stress
Stress hardiness describes one’s resiliency to stress, or ability to remain distress-free in the face of stressors. The Four “C’s” of stress hardiness are shown below.
Control – When we are in Control of our situation, we are not likely to feel stressed out.
Challenge – When we view our situation as a Challenge, rather than overwhelming, we are more likely to avoid distress.
Commitment – Commitment to our goals and to our mental/physical health is also important for a distress-free life.
Centeredness – Centeredness refers to our feeling of contentment with ourselves and our position in life. When we feel we know what we want and are doing, we will experience much less distress than those who do not feel centered.
Thoughts that lead to burnout are typically negative, focusing on one’s inability to affect change, or “I can’t.” Optimal emotions for stress reduction include good self-esteem, positive outlook, personal power, connectedness, expressiveness, and compassion.
These emotions are similar to the Four C’s of stress hardiness, which points to the fact that when we are more in touch with our emotions and have the capacity to contain them when necessary, we are more resilient to stress.
Burnout emotions are self-criticism, pessimism, helplessness, alienation, internalization, and resentment. When we are ruled by these self-defeating emotions, we are much less likely to accomplish our tasks, we are more likely to feel burned out and overwhelmed, and we are therefore likely to become distressed.
Given the prevalence of many of the burnout behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in our lives, it is clear why it is beneficial to learn some of the following techniques, which can help you and your clients reduce stress by achieving the optimal behaviors, thoughts and emotions necessary for stress reduction.
Deep Breathing is important to practice regularly. It not only forces us to sit still and focus on our lungs and diaphragm instead of all our stressors, but it also increases blood flow and oxygen to our muscles and tissues, which might otherwise be deprived.
- Choose a quiet spot, sit, or stand in a comfortable position.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose and push out your stomach as much as you can.
- Hold your breath for a few seconds.
- Slowly breathe out through your mouth; pucker your lips (like your whistling) so you can control how fast the air comes out of your mouth.
- Repeat three or four times.
The Calming Response
The Calming Response can be done before or during a stressful event. It serves to slow down our heart rate, increase blood and oxygen to our entire body, and entertain positive thoughts rather than negative, stressful ones.
- Breathe in deeply, hold your breath for 5 seconds.
- Blow out slowly and focus on relaxing all the muscles in your body (start with head and neck, work down through the arms, torso, hips, legs, feet, toes).
- Repeat the following words to yourself: “I’m relaxed” (or any other phrase that relaxes you).
- Continue for a few minutes until you feel calm.
Imagery can be used when on a mini break from stresses of the day. This technique evokes a peaceful mind state that can greatly reduce our stress. Also, because of the detailed nature of it, imagery can serve almost as a vacation in that we can trick our bodies to think they are in another environment, which serves to take the kettle off the flame.
Close your eyes and picture a peaceful, restful, beautiful happy scene. Allow your imagination to run free. For example, imagine yourself on a beach, see the palm trees, hear the breaking waves, smell the ocean air, feel the sun on your body (make sure to utilize all 5 senses in your imagination). If stressful thoughts enter your mind, gently push them aside by focusing on the details of your scene. Think about the scene until you feel rested and relaxed.
Autogenics is another technique that involves distracting our mind by focusing on different body parts. With this technique, our focus on each body part can actually increase blood flow to those areas.
First, sit and close your eyes. Relax your right hand and let it go loose. Say to yourself, “my right hand feels warm and heavy.” In your mind, picture your hand getting warm and heavy. Repeat these words and focus on your hand until it begins to feel warm and heavy. Repeat this process with your right arm, your left hand, your left arm, your right leg, your left leg, and so on until all the muscles in your body feel relaxed.
Progressive Muscular Relaxation
Progressive Muscular Relaxation forces us to tense different parts of our body and then release the tension, focusing on the difference between a tense and a relaxed state. We progress down our whole body, concentrating on things other than our stressors, and we also relieve muscular tension and increase blood and oxygen flow.
- One at a time, tense and relax the major muscle groups in your body (e.g., begin with your forehead and move to your eyes, your mouth, your neck, etc.).
- Hold each tension state for about 5 seconds.
- Relax, thinking about the area smoothing out.
- Compare the feelings of relaxation versus tension.
Rehearsal / Visualization
Rehearsal/Visualization is a useful technique for preparing for stressful events. It allows us to see ourselves successful so we enter the event with a positive attitude.
- Imagine yourself walking into the meeting room with a smile on your face and a confident gait.
- Continue through every step of the scenario, imagining yourself successful at every turn. If you experience a negative thought, acknowledge it and then go back a step and continue forward, seeing yourself succeed.
- When you’ve accomplished your imagined task, let yourself bask in the feelings of success.
Meditation is the practice of uncritically attempting to focus our attention on one thing at a time. Exactly what is focused on is not as important as the process of attempting to focus on it.
- Focus on one thing and repeat it to your self, silently or aloud.
- As soon as another thought enters your mind, acknowledge it and then send it away so you can return to your item of focus. Some people imagine themselves underwater, where the intrusive thoughts are bubbles that float to the surface, allowing you to continue meditating.
- Try to meditate for a slightly longer period each time you do it.
- The longer you are able to focus on one thing, the more relaxed you will feel when you return to your daily activities.
Positive Self-Talk is just what it sounds like. We boost our self-esteem by telling ourselves that we can meet our goals and that we are in control. This technique is helpful just before a stressful event, or throughout the day whenever we find ourselves thinking pessimistic thoughts. This technique is sometimes called thought stopping, because we “stop” the negative thought and force ourselves to have a positive one.
Some people find inspirational quotes and place them in locations where they will be seen several times a day.
Having a pet has been shown to reduce stress levels in people. In a study of patients who had experienced acute myocardial infarction, pet owners had one fifth the death rate of those who did not have a pet.
(Friedmann & Thomas, 1995)
We can reduce our stress (i.e., take our kettle off the flame) by doing any combination of the following techniques:
- Practicing optimal thoughts, behaviors and emotions
- Deep Breathing
- Progressive Muscular Relaxation
- Positive Self-Talk