You’ve got chapters to read, dinner to fix, that report to prepare for work; then the cat just threw up on the carpet, and now your kid is saying he isn’t feeling well. ACK! Whatever your combination of stressors may be, we all know the terrible feeling of too many demands and not enough time, energy, or copies of yourself to take care of everything.
Although a little bit of short-term stress can be helpful in giving you a competitive edge or the energy to push a project to completion, long-term, chronic stress makes it difficult to be successful. Too much stress means there is an imbalance between the demands for your time and energy, and your ability to cope. If your coping strategies are able to balance out the demands, then you will be fine. When the balance tips toward the demands, though, that is when you’ll start to feel stressed. The first key to managing it is learning how to recognize it.
Stress can manifest itself in many ways. Sometimes they are physical symptoms, like heart palpitations, upset stomach, muscle tension, or headaches. They could be emotional symptoms, like irritability, moodiness, or perhaps emotionally shutting down and becoming numb. Stress can also appear as mental symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness. Or, you might realize just how stressed you are because are slipping into certain habits or other behaviors: overeating or reaching for certain comfort foods, difficulty falling asleep, or perhaps the opposite — losing your appetite or sleeping a lot more than usual.
Since feeling stressed means that the balance between your demands and coping methods is off-kilter, you essentially have two strategies: reduce your demands by decreasing your work or finding ways to work more efficiently, or increase the effectiveness of your coping methods (or some combination of the two). You can read more about time management strategies to help you work more efficiently, but for now I’ll talk about boosting your coping methods.
Before we get started, keep a couple things in mind:
- Try multiple strategies to find the ones that fit you
- Many of these strategies take a bit of practice to get more comfortable with them. Expect them to feel a bit awkward at first.
- Include relaxation on a regular basis
- If you make it part of your routine, you can prevent stress from building in the first place. Having a routine will also help make relaxation a habit.
- It’s helpful to make sure that you are taking care of your health. Unhealthy habits, like lack of exercise, sleep, and unhealthy nutrition can increase your stress level.
Ok, let’s get started! We are going to cover three relaxation methods for you to try. For all three of these methods, keep these tips in mind:
- Sit up straight: hunching over can restrict your breathing
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing
- Practice in a quiet, comfortable space where you won’t be interrupted
- Remember that the goal is to relax (which can help you stay alert and focused), not fall asleep. Practice in the morning and while sitting up to discourage sleepiness.
You can use these techniques to help yourself fall asleep at night, but establish a different routine — do them in your pajamas, in bed, lying down, vs. in your work clothes, sitting up, during the day. These differences actually make a big difference in signaling to your body to relax but stay awake vs. relax and fall asleep.
Basic idea: Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is the most fundamental form of relaxation. When we are too stressed, we breathe shallowly using only our chest, instead of our diaphragm, preventing our lungs from fully inflating. When we breathe from our diaphragm, more oxygen enters our blood, which brings oxygen to the brain, changes heart rhythm, can initiate the parasympathetic system response immediately.
How to do it:
- You can begin with your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. First, just breathe in whatever way feels most natural or comfortable to you. No right way. Just whatever feels good — fast or slow, deep or shallow. Notice your breathing rhythm and what part of the body you feel the movement in the most: in your nose? Chest? Stomach? No right or wrong answer, just notice wherever you happen to feel it.
- After a minute or so, gently slow your breathing down in a comfortable way so that each inhale lasts for a count of five, and each exhale lasts for a count of five. Don’t force this rhythm if it doesn’t feel comfortable, though — gently transition into it.
- As you do this and become more comfortable with this rhythm, you will naturally begin to breathe from your diaphragm. You can place a hand on your stomach and a hand on your chest and see if you feel your stomach rising and falling more than your chest.
- Stay with this deep, slowed breathing for several minutes at least, and up to 10-15 minutes or even longer if you would like lasting benefit.
Note: You’ll benefit most if you practice deep breathing on a regular basis — once a day or multiple times a day. You can do this before a study session or a test to calm and focus your mind or help yourself unwind before going to bed at night. If you feel dizzy, tone down or discontinue the exercise.
For more deep breathing exercises, visit this website featuring various “rooms” with guided breath pacers at different rhythms.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Basic idea: For this method, you will alternately tense and relax muscle groups in your body, working your way from head to toe. It is helpful in teaching you how to recognize the feeling of muscular tension when it sneaks up on you, and how to intentionally relax that particular area.
How to do it:
- Focus on a small, specific area, and tense those muscles for 5-10 seconds. Pay attention to how that tension feels.
- Then immediately and completely relax those same muscles for about 30 seconds. Pay attention to how the relaxation feels, contrasted to the tension.
- Again, tense those muscles for 5-10 seconds, noticing how that tension feels.
- Relax those muscles for another 30 seconds or so, and see if you can let go of that tension more and more. Focus on the contrast between the tension and relaxation.
- Repeat this process through the body. For example, you could follow this pattern:
- One hand/fist
- The other hand/fist
- Facial muscles
Note: If you have injuries, proceed cautiously with that area. As with any exercise, listen to your body and if you feel pain or discomfort, back off or discontinue the exercise.
Basic Idea: Go to your “happy place”: Vividly think of or imagine a scene that makes you feel happy, relaxed, and safe. The more senses — not just imagery, but also sound, touch, smell, and taste — you can include, the better it will work. It helps if you can draw on a favorite memory, because then the sensory experience will be more vivid.
How to do it:
- Begin by closing your eyes. Think back on a favorite memory or imagine a beautiful scene. Incorporate as many senses as possible, at least three to make the experience vivid. For example, if you were remembering beautiful mountain scenery, you might visualize the following:
- The beautiful, lush greenery all around you. The different types of plants, trees, bushes, and moss, all in emerald green.
- In between tall trees, you can see the deep blue sky peeping through.
- There is a rushing brook along the path and you can see the smooth stones, worn down by the water. You hear the sound of the water, and occasionally a breeze rustling the leaves or birds singing close by.
- The air is cool and fresh, and filled with the scent of pine and earth. You feel the breeze against your skin.
- Spend 10-15 minutes clearly visualizing a scene that is appealing to you — perhaps a beach, or an orchard, or any place that makes you feel relaxed and safe. Vividly imagine being there: walking along a mountain path, sitting on a beach, seeing dolphins, hearing birds — whatever the scene may be, visualize it in as much detail as you can.
Note: It should feel very enjoyable, and you may lose track of time or zone out a bit. By the end, you should feel more relaxed. Learn more about guided visualization.
What are your best tips for keeping stress at bay? Add them in the comments below!