Saturday, June 7, 2008

Stress-Reduction Techniques

Posted by Neill Abayon

Practice the "Relaxation Response" and Similar Techniques

Recognizing that some people who practice meditation are capable of reducing their heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption, Harvard's Herbert Benson, M.D., set out several decades ago to understand how they do it. He developed a simple practice that focuses on the qualities in meditation that create relaxation and reduce stress.

Here's how: Every day, plan to spend some time at rest (not asleep). Sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes and relax your muscles. Focus on breathing regularly. Continuously repeat one word. Repeat it aloud or in your mind. It should be a simple word, such as "relax" or "easy," a religious word or phrase, or a meaningless word like the "om" used in transcendental meditation. Continue regular breathing with your muscles relaxed.

Learn Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This technique allows you to relax your entire body. Start at your head. Tense your facial muscles by clenching your teeth and furrowing your brow. Hold the tension for five to 10 seconds, and then release it. Next, tense your shoulder muscles by shrugging them and tucking in your chin. Hold the tension for five to 10 seconds, then release. Next, tense your arm muscles by making fists. Hold the tension for five to 10 seconds, then release. Continue to tighten and release each group of muscles in your body until you have worked all the way down to your toes. Picture the tension evaporating as you release each muscle. Focus on the warmth and heaviness of the body parts as they relax.

Do Visualization

Visualizing is a good way to remove yourself mentally from a stressful situation. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes. Practice the progressive muscle relaxation exercise outlined above. Allow thoughts to pass through your mind without actually "thinking" about them. Imagine you are somewhere that makes you feel good, such as the beach or the woods, a spot where you have spent a restful vacation or a beautiful place you can picture even if you have never visited. Breathe slowly and deeply until you feel relaxed. Focus on all five senses. Imagine what you see, feel, hear, taste and smell. Continue to visualize yourself in this place for five to 10 minutes. Then gradually return your focus to the room you are in and end the visualization exercise.

Practice Relaxed Breathing Exercises

Take a deep breath in and out. Did you feel your chest expand and contract? Did your shoulders go up as you drew air into your lungs? This is how many adults breathe. But to breathe more efficiently — and to promote relaxation — we need to look to the way we breathe while asleep.

When in a relaxed sleeping state, we usually breathe from our diaphragm, which is the muscle between the abdomen and the chest. When breathing through the abdomen, the chest and shoulders remain relatively still while the abdomen rises and lowers with each breath. The type of breathing we do while sleeping takes less effort and is typically more efficient than the breathing we do while awake. As a result, abdomen breathing is more relaxing.

How can you practice relaxed breathing?

Lie flat on your back. Place your feet slightly apart. Lightly rest one hand on your abdomen, just near your navel. Rest your other hand on your chest. Inhale through your nose and calmly exhale through your mouth until you've emptied most of the air from your lungs. Focus on your breathing and watch which hand is moving.

As you slowly count to four, gently inhale, slightly distending your abdomen to make it rise. Imagine warmth flowing into your lungs and to all parts of your body. Pause for one second. Then as you slowly count to four, gently exhale, letting your abdomen slowly fall and your diaphragm relax. Pause for another second. Repeat this process five to 10 times. When you become familiar with the process, you can practice relaxed breathing while seated and, then, while standing.

Write About Your Stress

A study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that writing about stressful experiences may help reduce the symptoms of common diseases, such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. One group of patients wrote about their most stressful life experience for 20 minutes a day over three consecutive days. The most common experiences were the death of a loved one, relationship difficulties, a serious problem affecting someone close to them and their involvement in or witness to a car wreck or other disaster. Another group spent an equal amount of time writing about a neutral topic.

The results:

  • Forty-seven percent of the group who wrote about stressful experiences showed "clinically relevant improvement" in their conditions four months later.
  • Only 24 percent of the second group showed a similar improvement.

This study held out the promise that a simple technique could improve immune function, lead to fewer visits to the doctor and offer an increased sense of well-being.

Subsequent efforts to repeat this study have produced mixed results. Some research shows that this writing technique brings about little apparent health benefit. A combined analysis of several studies showed a positive effect, but it was small. Scientists working in this area urge more studies to determine how helpful this technique might be. It is, however, an easy method to try, and because it has no known negative effects, it may be useful to try when you're stressed, especially under the guidance of your therapist, counselor or doctor.

Deflate the Danger of Your Fears

The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, look closely at your thoughts to see whether the situation merits as much stress as you feel. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the worst that can happen?
  • Is it likely that the worst outcome will occur? If so, how likely is it?
  • How would such an outcome change your life?
  • Is there anything else you can do to influence the result, or have you done all that is possible?

Asking yourself these questions can help you reduce stress to a more manageable size.

Remove Stressors

Are you someone who says, "Sure!" when a boss or colleague asks you to take on another project, but then feels a knot in your stomach? Do you already have more responsibilities than you can comfortably handle? If so, you may need to set some limits.

Stop promising more than you can realistically handle. Be polite, but just say, "No. With the current responsibilities I have, I cannot take on more at this time." Be open to the observations other people make about your workload. If they see that your workload is over-burdensome, try to accept their view without getting angry or self-critical. Try to figure out what their feedback means.

Manage Your Time

Think ahead to reduce stress. Or, as one expert puts it, "Knowing what is happening is better than being in the dark, having a strategy or defense ready is better than being unprepared, and being able to avoid or eliminate stress is better than sitting there suffering."

One way to manage your time is to set priorities. Write a to-do list and schedule time to work on top priorities first. This can help you get the most important tasks done, while controlling the stress you feel about them.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Like many people, you may have a favorite comfort food you reach for when you're stressed. Whether it's ice cream, potato chips or a juicy hamburger, chances are it's high in fat, sugar or salt. From a health perspective, your comfort food is bad for your health.

Several studies suggest that a good diet may reduce stress. And while it is difficult to give up a comforting treat, treats may backfire, making you feel worse. Less comfort food may actually result in you feeling more comfortable.


Numerous studies show that exercise can reduce stress. For maximum effect, try an aerobic exercise (such as running, swimming or brisk walking) for 20 minutes or more. If you can't do that, even a 10-minute walk can help. Yoga and nonaerobic movement such as stretching can reduce stress by inducing a calmer, meditative state.

Exercise reduces stress partly by turning your attention away from the causes of your stress. It has a calming effect, decreasing emotional suffering and enhancing concentration. You feel proud about doing it, so it improves self-esteem.

Working out also helps counter possible diseases that are made worse by chronic stress, such as heart disease.

It is difficult to start or maintain an exercise routine, especially when you are depressed. Nonetheless, exercise can help you handle stress and is good for your general health.


Discussing your difficulties with someone you trust helps relieve tension and may help you solve your problems. You may prefer a larger community, such as a spiritual group, an interest or hobby group, or a sports team.

Happy hour might not be the best way to reduce stress. Having a glass of wine with dinner may have health benefits, but excessive alcohol consumption can make matters worse. Be choosy about which groups you socialize with. Stay away from situations that make you feel uncomfortable or that reinforce unhealthy habits, because those may increase your stress.

Seek Therapy

If you've tried numerous stress-reduction techniques but continue to feel overly stressed, you could talk to a therapist about:

  • How to improve you ability to cope with stress
  • How to better handle conflicts, manage anger and communicate with others
  • How to approach problems that cause stress

A therapist can help you to understand how your thoughts influence your stress level. You can learn to change your thoughts and your experience of stress. Cognitive behavior therapy is one approach that is popular and has been proven effective.

Cognitive behavior therapy seeks to control negative thoughts and beliefs and encourage positive ones. Imagery or role-playing can help you rehearse for when stress actually occurs, teaching you what to expect and how to respond. If anger is a problem, a therapist can teach you to be more aware of how your anger comes about and help you to express your anger more constructively.

If your chief source of stress is a relationship at home, try couples therapy or family therapy. A therapist can address sexual problems, and help you manage the stress that comes with the birth of a child and the loss of a parent. Therapy can help you deal with a particularly rebellious adolescent or a family member's emotional problems.

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