A catalogue of techniques, technologies and tips for personal peace.
Stress is unavoidable. Always has been and always will be. But unavoidable doesn’t mean unmanageable. The latest stress research shows that how you react to a stressful event is what determines its impact on your health. If you let stress bother you, it will bother you, and in ways that can be physical as well as mental.
But handle stress intelligently and you will turn the enemy into an ally. Stress can motivate, invigorate, instigate and educate. It can be a kick in the pants rather than a slap in the face. This is why I’ve compiled the following catalogue – a guide to stress-fighting techniques that you can use right now.
Some of these anti-stress strategies get at the causes of stress (which, of course, is preferred way of beating stress). Other gives temporary relief by treating its symptoms. Both approaches have their place, and combining them into one double-barreled stratagem may be what it takes to slay the beast. Not all these techniques are appropriate for everyone. And not all are backed by rock-solid scientific data – a lot of them are just good bets based on common sense. So you’ll have to shop, select what you think might work for you and see what de-stress best.
For quick, temporary stress relief that takes the edge off the moment, there’s a lot you can do. “But stress reduction is a very personal thing, meaning that what works for one person may not work for another,” says Paul Rosch, M.D., of the American Institute of Stress. So here are some stress releasers that come with no guarantees, but are worth-a-try options when you need to find a little relief in a hurry.
You come home after a bad day feeling as friendly as a wolverine. Do you try to mix with the family “as is”? You might try decompressing first. Go for a walk or take a shower. Do anything to let your mood run out of steam. By leaping right in with the family – dealing too soon with yet another set of concerns and personalities – you could be intensifying your stress. Try decompression breaks at work, too, or any time you feel yourself running too hot. A few minutes to cool down may be all you need.
Make light of a heavy situation and it immediately loses some of its weight. Comedians have been doing this for us for centuries, says Steven Allen Jr., M.D. (yes, the son of comic genius Steve Allen), but we need to get better at doing it for ourselves. “We need to revere humour in these high-stress times of ours, not just tolerate it.”
But sometimes it’s tough to force a laugh in tense situations. What do you do? One technique that can help do the trick involves blowing a situation out of proportion – to the point that it becomes laughable. If you’re struck in a traffic jam, for example, construct the worst scenario imaginable. “These cars will never move. I’ll be stuck here for the rest of my life. By the time I get out, my children will have grown up, married and had children of their own. They won’t even remember who I am.” When your scenario reaches the point of absurdity, you begin to smile at yourself. It puts the situation in perspective, which calms you down.
We talk to them, we pet them, we cuddle them, we confide in them. Pets, as a result, can be great stress reducers. Some people feel their pet is like a psychiatrist they don’t have to pay.
Yes, pet therapy is proving capable of producing many of the same relaxation benefits as other, more conventional forms of treatment. Research has shown that heart-attack victims who have pets live longer; that pets can help ease household tensions and that even just watching a tank full of tropical fish may lower blood pressure, at least temporarily.
Why are pets so soothing? Animals make us feel safe and unconditionally accepted. We can just be ourselves around our pets.
Pets also can help bring out our lighter, more playful side. Studies show that even people who are normally reserved will loosen up around animals. To keep animals from being a source of stress, however, it’s important to choose a pet that’s not going to take more of your time – or your house – than you have to give.
Stress for many of us is caused not so much by our environments as by our attitudes. Perhaps you expect too much of yourself or others. Or maybe you suffer from low self-esteem and remain too passive. Either way, stress can result as we fail to get from life what we feel we deserve. The solution?
We need to change the attitudes that generate stress in the first place. The following disciplines and techniques are dedicated to doing that:
The secretary who feels like a slave. The sales associate who feels frustrated mired at the bottom of the corporate ladder. What these people lack is respect – both from themselves and others. What they need to turn that around is to be assertive – that is, to be able to communicate needs and feelings.
Here are a few simple principles. Be straightforward: Say “No” politely and firmly; don’t make excuses. Admit your feelings. Say, “I’m angry” rather than “You make me mad.” Express your preferences and priorities: Say, “I don’t have a particular movie to suggest though I do want to avoid ones with violence” instead of, “I don’t care – whatever everyone else wants is O.K. with me.” Most experts agree that assertiveness training isn’t for everyone, but if you’re fearful of rejection and afraid of emotional confrontations, you could be a candidate.
Why are some top executives under less stress than many homemakers? Because they’ve learned to delegate. They’ve learned the fine art of sharing the load. “Stress for many of us is a self-inflicted burden in this regard,” says psychologist Steven Fahrion, Ph.D., of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Whether because of too much ego, or not enough, we fail to get others to pitch in where they can and should.
The idea, experts say, is to delegate what we can so that we’re able to spend more time on the things that we can’t.
Thoughts cause feelings, and the wrong kind of thoughts can cause stressful feelings. We cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary anxiety by seeing the glass as half empty rather than as half full.
Call it twisted thinking; there are lots of examples. Do you automatically interpret silence on the part of your spouse to mean anger when it could just as easily mean fatigue? Do you blame yourself when a sudden downpour drenches your wash on the line?
We all fall into the negative thinking rut from time to time. We may over-generalize, jump to conclusions, badger ourselves with “should haves,” and lose sight of the fact that “good” and “bad” in life is rarely black and white.
All-or-nothing thinking can lead to anxiety, depression, guilt, feelings of inferiority, perfectionism and anger.
Misery may like company, but the desire for comfort likes it even more. Support groups give their members an opportunity to do something about their problems and to be more than passive victims. They reduce the sense of isolation that people often feel when afflicted with a serious health dilemma. So, whether it’s a drug or alcohol problem, diabetes or psoriasis, there’s a group out there willing to listen and to help alleviate some of the stress.
“But I do my best work under pressure.”
Baloney, says psychologist Neil Fiore, Ph.D. By putting things off you wind up having to wrestle with self-disapproval in addition to the task at hand. It’s a double whammy that can inhibit optimal performance in addition to being unhealthfully stressful. He offers these tips for procrastinators:
Enjoy your playtime guilt-free. Fill your weekly schedule with time for leisure and friends – then watch your resentment toward work melt away. Avoid being overwhelmed by trying to finish. Instead focus on the key phrase “When can I start?” This puts your mind on small, do-able steps with specific starting times.
The Serenity Prayer
Yes, some stress is inevitable and even necessary for survival. Nothing ventured, after all, nothing gained. But there’s a fine line between challenging ourselves and simply frustrating ourselves by attempting the impossible. And that’s where the following “serenity prayer” can come in handy:
“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Get the point? Stress, for a lot of us, is the result of biting off more than we can chew.
Forget the gurus searching for nirvana. Meditation is for anyone looking for a little more peace here on earth. It involves simply taking a few quiet moments to focus your attention on a specific thought, word, sound or bodily sensation, such as breathing. The goal is not immediate relaxation. Rather, meditation helps settle the mind so it can process thoughts calmly, in an organized way, throughout the day.
How often do you find your mind racing around in a dozen directions? “People basically do live ‘out of their minds’ a lot of the time,” explains Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., director of the stress reduction and relaxation programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. “Meditation can help us get back in control by forcing us to be present in the moment and to observe our thought processes.”
“It’s a shock to many people the first time they meditate. They find they can’t focus their attention on one breath without their mind jumping around,” he explains. “Ironically, however, once you become aware of the chaos, your mind starts to calm down.”
It’s important to remember that when you notice your mind wandering during meditation, you shouldn’t judge it; that creates stress. Just gently pull yourself back to the present moment by re-directing your attention to the word ot thought you’re meditating on.
A woman bothered by stress-related headaches finds relief by distributing old clothes to needy children. A business executive finds peace with every tune he strums out on his Spanish guitar after a chaotic day at the office. A beleaguered housewife returns home refreshed and frisky after a quick three-day weekend in the mountains. Is there a common theme here?
Yes. These people are fighting stress by lifting their spirits and nourishing their souls. They’re giving more perspective and meaning to their lives by taking time to see and experience the bigger picture.
Many of us go through a lot of unnecessary stress simply by failing to get off our treadmills often enough, the experts say. We get ourselves into ruts that can leave us feeling isolated, depressed, tired and trapped.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Simply by expanding our experiences, we can enlarge our worlds. And by enlarging our worlds, we give life’s daily snags less importance. We’ve got to take off our blinders, the experts say, and learn that straight ahead is not the only way to look. Peace of mind is better found by looking all around. Read on and see how:
Not only is it more noble to give than to receive, it may also be healthier.
When we help others on a personal basis, we help ourselves by reducing stress. It draws our attention away from ourselves, and seems to diminish feelings of isolation and loneliness, which sometimes can produce stress.
Simply exercising one’s cheque book, though, may not be enough to produce these dividends. Direct contact seems to be a necessary part of the process. “It’s also a good idea for people to get involved with a cause they really care about,” says Lucks. “Otherwise there may be a feeling of refreshment in the giving, which can reduce its stress-reducing benefits. Keeping involved on a regular basis also seems to be important – doing something weekly, for example.”
Yes, sex involves arousal, but it can also – if it’s good – promote profound relaxation, says Joshua, Golden, M.D., director of the human sexuality programme at UCLA. Most people, after all, go to sleep following a good frolic, so it’s got to be doing something right.
Then, too, there are the emotional benefits of a healthy sexual relationship – you’re establishing the security of a meaningful bond with another person, Dr. Golden says. Add the self-esteem that a good sex life can help nourish and you’ve got a stress-buster with few equals. What other activity can do so much, not just for you but for someone else?
It’s something to think about the next time you’re tempted to turn on the television instead of your mate.
The vacation – the Rolls Royce of stress reduction, right?
Careful. Yes, vacations can vanquish stress but they can also evoke it, says Richard J. Gitelson Ph.D., of the department of leisure studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Danger lies in the vacation that’s poorly planned and, hence, rife with decisions regarding meals and lodging that needs to be made on the spot. Also stressful is the whirlwind vacation that tries to do too much.
The best vacation strikes a balance between being exciting and fun but also being relaxing, Dr. Gitelson says. You want a sense of adventure, but you don’t want to be pulling your hair out to get it. This is why tours are becoming more and more popular, Dr. Gitelson says. The worrisome details are eliminated, but not the sense of wonder.
Also growing in popularity are shorter vacations, Dr. Gitelson says – two-to-three-day outings rather than two-week marathons. Vacations dedicated to stress reduction and health improvement specifically are also gaining in favour.
Keeping A Journal
Not only is the pen mightier than the sword, it can be mightier than the army of anxieties that keep us captive to stress. “Writing is a great way of unburdening ourselves,” says James Pennebaker, Ph.D., author of Opening Up: The Healing Powers of Confiding in Others. “It’s a way of putting our problems into a more manageable form which can make them more understandable and perhaps even a little easier to solve.”
Dr. Pennebaker has done studies with college students showing that those who participated in writing sessions reduced their blood pressures and boosted their immune systems. He offers these tips:
Choose a place that’s private and peaceful. Set a time limit for each session – 20 to 30 minutes should do it. Write for the entire time, even if you find you’re repeating yourself. As specifically as possible, write about what’s troubling you, not just day-to-day events. Write with the assurance that your thoughts need never be discovered by others – and be honest accordingly. Don’t feel compelled to write every day (too much writing can be a substitute for action, Dr. Pennebaker says).