Benjamin Franklin wrote that there are two certainties in life, death and taxes. I would like to add a third to that: stress.
For better or worse, we all understand that stress is a natural part of daily life. We understand stress to be an experience of mental, emotional, and/or physical pressure in the face of challenges or changes. We know what it is, but often we struggle to find ways to navigate the root causes and symptoms of stress in our selves and our lives.
The three stress-management tools I discuss in this article are designed to positively impact the whole person: our mind, our emotions, our bodies. These strategies will help you learn to manage the stresses of life, and their impact on you in a more effective way!
1. Adapt your thinking: Change your mindset from reaction to intention.
We all have expectations, some more realistic than others. For example, if I need to get to work on time, and I know my commute is 15-minutes with traffic, I can reasonably expect that if leave 15-20 minutes before I need to be at work, I will get there on time.
But what if I am late leaving the house? I might feel anxious or stressed knowing I might be late to work. This may cause me to react by driving faster, hoping to beat the clock. This thinking process and reactionary behavior also has the potential to exponentially increasing my stress levels. In this worst case scenario, feeling anxious or stressed can impair my ability to make healthy or safe choices: I might put myself at risk for a speeding ticket, or an accident because I am distracted or impatient.
What is happening in this situation?
- I have essentially denied the reality of my situation: I am going to be late to work.
- Instead, I am trying to unrealistically meet the expectation: I should be at work on time.
- I may be trying to do this by over compensating with my behaviors: driving too fast.
- This reactionary thinking and behavior could make the situation worse: I could meet with an accident, or get a speeding ticket.
At any given moment, there are numerous triggers for stress in our lives. We may not realize how our thoughts and behaviors can prolong situations, make them worse, or not actually solve the root problems that cause stress.
Behaviors are often triggered by thoughts and emotions. Adapting our mindset to be intentional can help us change our behaviors from reactions to responses.
An intentional mindset is flexible and adaptable to change. Our behaviors mirror our mindset.
When we are operating with an intentional mindset, we are better able to find healthy solutions to manage the problems we face in our daily lives, and we have the opportunity to reduce the impact stress can have on us. For example, in the above scenario I could use intention to call my employer before I leave the house, and inform them that I will be a few minutes late. This will relieve some of the stress I am experiencing as I get started with my work day.
2. Build emotional awareness: Learn to be mindful.
For some of us relaxation may mean the occasional glass of wine at the end of a long week. For others it may mean getting a massage, manicure, spending time with your family or partner, or catching up on some much needed sleep. Whatever helps you to relax and unwind– do more of that! However, learning to relax from the perspective of building emotional awareness, often called the practice of mindfulness- goes beyond the mani-pedi type of self-care.
Mindfulness may seem like a relatively benign intervention, some may even see it as waste of time– who has the time to meditate when we have all those problems banging at our door. And while overall the science shows that there are immediate benefits for physical and emotional symptoms, it also shows that these benefits may not have long-lasting results.
However, and this is important, ever heard of 21-days to build a habit?–well, the reality is it takes approximately 66 days to form new behavior. When we practice something for long enough, our minds and bodies come to expect the benefits that come from these activities– something called conditioning. So even if the immediate benefits are modest and short-lived, if we practice these activities often in our lives our minds and bodies start to enjoy the benefits, and eventually expect them.
So, what are the benefits? Mindfulness is known to:
- improve our ability to change unhealthy thought patterns and be more flexible in our thinking,
- improve focus and concentration,
- reduce stress,
- strengthen relationships,
- and build insight into our selves and our behaviors.
Additionally, there are physical benefits on breathing, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, reducing muscle tension, and managing pain symptoms.
The American Psychological Association has a great article on some of the ways that mindfulness can improve mental and emotional well-being for both the client and the counselor (yes, we need to practice mindfulness too!).
Mindfulness builds cognitive and emotional awareness, and helps us engage in intentional living.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has some great techniques to help you learn to relax and build mindfulness. The exercises and videos below are easy guides to get you started with intentional relaxation and meditation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Therapist Aid YouTube 6-minute guided video
This is a relaxation exercise that is usually a guided activity. During the session, you will simply tense-up individual muscle groups, moving progressively up or down your body– from your head to your toes! Each time you tighten a muscle group, you will be asked to hold it for a count before releasing the tension.
Deep Breathing: Therapist Aid YouTube 3-minute guided video
An important aspect of this exercise is breathing from the belly. Variations of the exercise may have you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, or in and out through your nose. Some practitioners may ask you to hold the breath for a count before you expel it.
3. Commit to your body: Get moving.
Exercise in all its forms has major benefits when it comes to relieving stress. When we are physically active, our brains have to focus on what we are doing in order to help our bodies continue the activity. For example, if you are playing tennis, or chess, exercising in a group or at the gym by yourself, your mind and body have to focus on what is happening in front of you– the tennis ball that is hurtling toward you, the next move on the chess board, the new Zumba choreography, or making sure the elliptical machine doesn’t throw you off.
Physical activity helps your body and your mind go into a sort of rhythm-activated meditative state. You become absorbed in the activity your body is involved in and your mind has to focus on.
Ever heard of a “runner’s high”?– following aerobic activity, the brain and body experience a feeling of euphoria and a state of being pain-free. Exercise turns on “feel good” hormones in your brain and nervous system. These hormones are called endorphins, which interact with your opiate receptors, contribute to that “feel good” sensation, and act as a pain reliever!
So, let’s do the math:
- Mind-clearing meditation through motion + feel good hormones = You feel better.
- You feel better = Your mood improves.
- Improved mood = You engage better thinking skills.
- Improved mood + improved thinking skills = Better equipped to find solutions to problems that contribute to stress.
We may not be able to avoid the stress that is a natural part of change and growth, but we have at least three major tools at our disposal to help us reduce its impact on us, find tangible solutions for the situations that trigger it, and better equip ourselves to manage our lives.
I have tagged some great articles in this post:
- How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) by James Clear.
- What are the benefits of mindfulness by Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD.
- How does exercise affect sleep duration and quality? By Max Hirshkowitz, PhD published through the National Sleep Foundation.
- Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression by Harvard Health Publishing.
- Exercise for stress and anxiety published through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
- Exercise to treat chronic pain published through the University of Iowa.
- Physical activity prevents chronic disease published by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP).
- The relaxation videos are linked from Therapist Aid‘s YouTube channel.