Handling stress so it doesn’t handle you

Amy Hendel Health Guide
  • It's easy to say, "Chill out, go meditate, take a walk and just shake it off."  But when stress entrenches itself in your day-to-day life, those recommendations can fall short of the kind of help you need.  Maybe you're a college student, maybe a soldier; maybe a single mother of 4, maybe a middle age man out of work for an extended period of time; maybe a cancer patient.  Though some techniques seem to work universally for most people, the trick to reducing and managing stress is to find the therapy that best suits your needs, your circumstance and your personality. 



    What's great about meditation is that it doesn't require any expensive equipment - just a quiet space pretty much anywhere that allows you to be comfortable physically, so you can focus attention, relax your breathing.  Even a few minutes of meditation can restore calm and inner peace and help to relieve stress.  These days meditation is used for relaxation and stress reduction.  It's considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine and it basically helps you to focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that are filling your mind and causing stress.  The best part of mediation is the fact that its benefits continue even after your meditation session ends.  Meditation can allow you to feel calmer, and it can even improve certain medical conditions.  Specific benefits include:

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    • Getting a new perspective on a stressful situation
    • Focusing on the present and what is really happening in the moment
    • Advancing your skills to manage stress
    • Reducing negative emotions
    • Increased self awareness


    Types of meditation include:


    1. Guided meditation also called guided imagery or visualization.  A professional leads you through a process that has you using all of your senses to form mental images of places or situations that you find relaxing.  The ability to invoke these images when you feel stress rising is the secondary goal.
    2. Mantra meditation in which you repeat a calming word or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. 
    3. Mindfulness meditation which involves having an increased awareness and acceptance of living and being in the moment.  You focus on breathing and observe thoughts and emotions without judging them.
    4. Qi gong, Tai chi and yoga are other exercise modalities that help you to focus and relieve stress.


    Positive thinking, self talk

    Is the cup half empty or half full?  Being an optimist can help you avoid or mitigate stress.  Positive thinking can be a management tool for controlling stress.  It doesn't mean ignoring harsh realities - it simply means you approach difficulties head on in a more positive and productive way.  We've all seen tennis players who talk to themselves on the court in the middle of a nasty losing streak and turn things around -that's positive self talk and optimism at work.  Positive self talk can lower rates of depression, lower levels of stress and distress and provide the individual with better coping skills during hardship.  Someone who doesn't use this tool can end up picking up some rather unhealthy and dangerous habits like smoking, drinking, overeating and self medicating or abusing drugs.


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    Relaxation techniques


    Relaxation techniques are a huge part of successful stress management.  They help to decrease the incessant wear and tear of your daily challenges.  Again these techniques are often free, low cost and easy to learn.  The benefits of relaxation techniques include lowering your blood pressure, slowing a racing heart, slowing your breathing, increasing blood flow to major muscles, and reducing muscle tension.  There are a variety of relaxation techniques and three of the more popular types include autogenic relaxation, progressive muscular relaxation and visualization (mentioned earlier).  Others include yoga, tai chi, listening to music, exercise, hypnosis and massage.  Relaxation takes practice so expect to log some hours of perfecting your technique.  These are skills and skills improve with practice.


    The American Heart Association has a vested interest in you learning to manage stress.  If you can't or don't, you can be well on your way to a cardiac event.  One unique condition called broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition brought on by stressful situations such as death of a loved one.  People who have this condition may have sudden chest pain and think they are having a heart attack.  Chronic stress in general can be definitively linked to a list of health conditions.  Certainly exercise, because of its health benefits and its ability to help you manage stress, should be a cornerstone of your stress management program.  The organization then recommends much of what has been mentioned earlier.  Think ahead and try to avoid stressors when possible.  Be positive not negative.  Use deep breathing to help defuse an acute situation.  Talk to a health professional especially if you have family history of hypertension, stroke or heart disease.  Learning to accept what you cannot change can go a long way to helping you manage stress.


    Recent research suggests that IBMT - Integrative Body-Mind Training - can improve tension and reduce stress better and more quickly than concentration meditation and other conventional stress reduction techniques.  Based on Taoist and Confusian concepts, the technique focuses on entering a state of "restful alertness," so that you have keen body-mind awareness.  It uses posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and deep breathing.  It typically requires a good coach but studies show its impact can be felt in less than a week's time.  It is not widespread in the US yet, but the technique is growing in popularity.


    Finally, if you have chronic unrelenting stress then the best way to deal with it is to take care of the underlying problem.  In addition to the above techniques, counseling can help you to handle emotional issues so you can relax and calm down.  Medications may also be needed, short term or long term to help you manage stress and other complicating issues like insomnia.  Simply recognizing and acknowledging that you have stress is a big first step in coping with stress.

Published On: September 21, 2009