The Stress Relief Prescription
© 1989 C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Stress affects human performance in so many ways that just to list the impact upon work would take half of this page. People under high stress become forgetful, are often late for work, miss appointments, have more sick days, have lower competence levels, are more irritable and difficult to get along with, are more likely to break things (by accident or intention) and are great candidates for the kinds of stress-related illnesses and accidents that drain Workers Compensation benefits.
Stress reduction must be a constant, on-going process in all our lives. It helps us avoid pain, illness and accident. And, a low-stress (or low-distress) lifestyle is certainly the most pleasant.
Once a client who was under a great deal of stress at the time said to me, urgently: "Look, all these options you've shown me for stress management are getting to be too much. It's like using a technique to put a patch on me here and another to put a patch on me there. I don't need to get better six months from now after I've learned a whole bunch of new things -- I need to be better now! Can't you just boil this stuff down to something simple I can understand and do right now? That I can use every day?"
Good question. In fact, thinking about it provided a whole new approach to helping with stress issues.
There is so much information and advice on stress these days that it's become stressful to sort through it to get help. Fortunately, the answer to my client's question is all that information and advice can be boiled down to three basic essentials:
1.) Optimum physical activity.
2.) Mastery of your thinking processes.
3.) A high level of self-esteem.
If you achieve these three things, you will be able to manage your stress, become highly stress-resistant, improve your health and physical well-being, raise your immunity to illness and improve your performance in everything you do.
OPTIMUM PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Why recommend physical activity for stress relief?
Stress is first a physical response, and physical responses require physical countermeasures. Stress is a primitive physical response or set of automatic physical responses to any demand placed upon the individual. The strength of that response varies with the kind and strength of the demand and the circumstances under which the demand is made. For example, a ringing phone is a demand. It gets a different strength of response depending upon when it rings. If you are taking a usual number of calls at the office at times you expect them, the demand is relatively low and your physical reaction is probably minimal. If the phone rings in the middle of the night when you're worried about a seriously ill loved-one in the hospital, the demand and your response are going to be high.
The response is generally called the fight/flight response. It should be called the fight/flight/freeze/faint/fumble response, since those are the usual possible outcomes. But, whatever we call it, here's basically what happens in your body:
* Your heart rate goes up.
* Your blood pressure goes up.
* You begin to perspire to help keep the body cool.
* Blood is directed away from hands/feet/digestive system to power large muscles.
* Your diaphragm (the muscle that works your lungs like a bellows) locks and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid.
* Your pupils dialate to help you see the enemy better.
* Your awareness of hearing becomes more focused.
* Your digestive system shuts down so the energy expended there can be used where it's needed. (Or, alternatively, the system may attempt to void its contents, so you'll be lighter and move faster.)
* Your immune and self-repair systems go on standby. After all, the processes of these systems are incompatible with heavy action. Besides, you need the energy to fight or run.
If you really need to meet a physical threat, all this is great. It prepares your body to do the job. Then, after doing the job -- destroying or avoiding the stressor -- your body returns to normal. However, almost all our stressors (stressors are whatever cause stress) today are what psychologists call "psychosocial". That is, they come from how we experience our selves, our work and other activities, and our relationships with other people. So, if your boss yells at you, your body is likely to react exactly the same as if you had to deal with a charging rhinoceros. Yet, you can't literally do what your body's prepared to do: you can't throw your spear at him and run. That means you're going to carry some tension from the encounter around with you until you find a way to discharge it.
Furthermore, you are likely to face many daily psychosocial stressors that cause the fight/flight response. If you don't find satisfying resolutions to your stressors, or if there are too many stressors, or if the response is too intense, eventually you're going to experience symptoms of stress-related illness. Stress symptoms may be physical or psychological. Physical symptoms range from muscle tension and headaches through high blood pressure and gastrointestinal ulcers to heart attacks and cancer. Psychological symptoms range from chronic anxiety through recurrent depression to complete "nervous breakdowns."
Physical activity is necessary to stress relief in helping to dissipate the stress reactions -- the flight/fight response. In addition, it helps you to:
* Reduce muscular tension of sedentary functions.
* Promote relaxation.
* Sleep easier and better.
* Concentrate better.
* Reduce pain.
* Raise mood. (Very important in anxiety and depression.)
* Reduce fatigue/restore energy.
* Increase stamina, strength and suppleness to help make you stress-fit -- i.e., the fight/flight response is taken with greater ease and shaken with greater ease.
Understanding this, you can see that a bit of physical activity might be worthwhile as a system of discharging the tensions of that fight/flight response.
What exactly do you mean by physical activity?
Exercise is a great idea if you can do, don't mind doing and don't overdo. A regular exercise program helps manage physical stress buildup, makes you feel better over all and probably live a longer and healthier life. But, if you really hate it and resent it, you're not going to follow through with it. You might as well try something else you find more pleasant.
Participating in sports is a more enjoyable way of releasing stress and tension for many people. Regular participation is as good as a regular exercise program.
Yoga, in a class or on your own, can also provide the benefits of a regular exercise program. It is, however, far less demanding for beginners, allowing the practitioner to slowly ease into the various stretches and poses. Moreover, you feel good while you are doing it and afterward. Done properly, yoga leaves muscles pleasantly stretched and stimulated. You should never be sore or sorry. And eventually you'll be strong, supple and stress-fit.
Stretching is like yoga. It gives you the same benefits, plus you can do many stress-alleviating stretches at your desk or work station, in your car, on an airplane and many other places where yoga wouldn't be practical. Which means you can often use this approach at or near the times and places your stress occurs.
Walking in a pleasant or entertaining place is another way to help reduce tensions. It's almost perfect for those times you need to dump your stress immediately to prevent interference with work or relationships. If you're angry, it gives you a chance to cool off while simultaneously working out the fight/flight response through a kind of purposeful "running away." If you're feeling low, a walk in a park can be very cheering -- and it's impossible to be active and deeply depressed at the same time. If you choose, as many do, to walk out your tensions in the shopping mall, try to leave your wallet at home. You don't want to add financial worries to your stress quotient.
MASTERY OF YOUR THINKING PROCESS.
You want to say that in English?
How and what you think determine how you feel (emotionally) and how you behave. If you have awareness of and control over your thinking process, then essentially you have control over everything that happens to you. In regard to the management of stress, this means that you can seize control of your reactions at the time of the flight/fight response and take the time to understand what's happening and what you want to do.
(You must remember that the flight/fight response will occur automatically -- it's a built-in survival mechanism. But you can reduce the occasions upon which it occurs in reaction to imaginary threats and you can reduce the intensity of the response to real threats that nevertheless do not affect your life, health or general well-being.)
Furthermore, since your body doesn't know the difference between real events and imaginary ones, you can use your thoughts to directly change what's happening in your body. For example, in self-hypnosis you can imagine your hands and feet becoming warmer and warmer. They will do so and at the same time you will be balancing the flow of blood throughout your body.
What do I do to be a mind master, O Swami?
There are a number of methods of gaining the ability to focus and control your mind, but no matter what approach seems to fit for you, they all accomplish the same tasks for stress management:
* Breathing slows and becomes deep and rhythmical.
* Heart rate slows and blood pressure drops.
* Brain waves slow to relaxed but alert level.
* Muscle tension eases.
* You become well relaxed.
* Distressing emotion is inhibited -- remember, you cannot be relaxed and anxious or angry at the same time.
* Calm envelopes you.
* Awareness is heightened and/or focused, depending on the method used.
* Thought clarifies or is dispensed with, depending on the method of used.
Meditation is the method I most recommend to achieve focus and control in your thinking processes. There are many possible ways to meditate including Zen-style, chanting, mantra-repetition, awareness-training and contemplation. I recommend Zen-style. It's simple, quickly-learned, compact and easily portable. Well, O.K., it's simple to explain and you can learn how in less than a minute. But it takes a lifetime to master. However, you don't have to master the method to get the benefits you need for stress management; you just have to practice every day. Here's how: find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Either close your eyes or allow your gaze to fall unfocused on the floor about three feet in front of you. Breathe normally and count your breaths thus: breathe in, do nothing, breathe out, count "1," repeat until you reach "4," then start over again from "1." Do nothing but breathe and count. Don't think, don't talk, don't look, don't listen. Just breathe and count. Continue for about ten minutes.
Instead of not thinking about anything, you think very specifically about one thing by making an imaginary movie in you head. For example, you might imagine yourself sitting on a tropical beach at dawn. You could see the changing colors in the sky as the sun rises, feel the soft warm breeze lift your hair away from your face, hear the plaintive cry of a gull, smell the saltiness of the water, hear the surf hitting the rocks beyond. If you can become proficient at putting yourself in such scenes, you can put yourself in scenes that make you feel anything you want to feel and you can modify any experience.
Self-Hypnosis begins with a set of formal instructions to yourself that are designed to induce deep relaxation in the "here and now." (The induction process is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many books available on how-to.) Then visualization is used as described above to modify your experiences of the past, present or expected future. For example, you might put yourself in a very relaxed state and then imagine an upcoming tennis competition in which you see and feel yourself playing well and winning.
SELF-ESTEEM DEVELOPMENT AND MAINTENANCE
What does self esteem have to do with stress?
Self-esteem is the value we place upon who and what we are. We base that value on our experience of our own past, present and planned behavior and motivations for that behavior and upon the behavior of others in relation to us. To place a value on yourself requires you to pretty well know yourself and therefore to know what is "not you." What doesn't fit or work for you is stressful to you. The better you know and value yourself, the easier to recognize stressors and cut them from your life, to recognize the helpful and add it to your life, to recognize the limits of your power and accept that which you cannot change.
When self-esteem is high, stress is low because:
* Fewer things are stressors to you.
* Stressors are recognized and quickly eliminated.
* Most change is in you hands; is your choice rather than something that happens to you.
* You choose beneficial behaviors rather than stressful ones because you only want the best for yourself.
* Because you are in charge of your reactions to stress, you can accept unpleasant and undesireable happenings with a minimum of emotional struggle and stress.
What do I do to get high self-esteem?
(For a detailed discussion of the following brief look at self-esteem, please read the book The Management of Self-Esteem, by Pete Bradshaw. What's below is a very restricted summary and rephrasing in my words of his ideas for how to look at self-esteem. His book is the very best I've encountered for clarity, brevity and practicality in application. Also good: Look for all books written by Nathaniel Brandon, who specializes in the subject of self-esteem.)
There are four sources of self-esteem:
1. Our achievements, accomplishments, skills, attributes, or competence.
You value yourself according to what you have done in the past that you and others consider important. And, you not only need a history of achievement to point to, but also continuing current accomplishments.
It is a rare person who has no skills or positive attributes in which to take pride. So, the first thing to do is to recognize how good you already are -- and at what. Then you can decide what to improve or to acquire.
2. Our values and beliefs and how well we act in accordance with those values and beliefs. You must know what are your values to know if you're living by them and to set goals that are satisfying to achieve. Also to judge your own worth, and the worth of the judgements other people make about you, you need a set of standards by which to judge. Those standards come from what you believe to be real, right and important in your universe. What you believe to be "good." To put it simply, if you believe you act like a "good" person should, you will have more self-esteem. Self-esteem requires a moral/ethical conscience. You must define your value system and live by it.
3. Being loved and valued by others.
While you must love, respect and believe in yourself, we all get part of our self-value from what others think of us and how they act toward us. You are a social creature and need some approval of who you are and what you do from whatever constitutes your society, however small that society may be. How much external love, value and approval you need is individual. Additionally, to be and feel successful in our work or careers, we need at least a couple of co-workers or related businesspeople who support of our intentions, plans and actions at work.
4. The degree of our power and control over our own selves and lives and the degree of our influence over others.
In order to have a high level of self-esteem, we must have a sense of power and control in our lives. We must believe that we have choices available to us in the important events in our lives. We must believe we are not merely helpless victims of an impersonal and random universe. We must be able to perceive an order, organization and predictablilty in the environment and in our relations with others. We must see opportunities to manipulate our environments and relationships to our advantage. We must feel that we are in charge of our own lives.
We need resources from each of these categories, just as a chair needs four legs to function as a chair. For each of us, the necessary amount of "draw" upon each category is different. That is, for some the resources from achievements are more needed than resources from influence. Or to look at it from a different perspective, to achieve is to influence, as far as an achiever is concerned. For others, a sense of personal control over environment is more important than the fulfillment of a specific planned goal or winning a race. Nevertheless, we must have a kind of bank account on which to draw in each category.
That may be just three things I have to do, but I've got lots to do already. Why should I add those three things more?
Actually the three basic elements of stress relief are not additive to your daily life; they've always been meant to be part of the process. Rather like putting yeast in the bread dough. Your body is designed by nature to be used actively and breaks down rapidly when it is not. Your mind works best when well-organized and well-controlled, not to mention that your emotions can only be managed by your thoughts. Your self-esteem determines the level of your confidence, motivation and will to do what needs doing. How could you live comfortably without any one of them?
Alright, but can you summarize this into something I can remember easily?
Try this: Exercise, meditate, keep self-esteem high. And lead a long, low-stress, productive life.
You may wish to see a related article in the archive:Job Stress, which takes a more direct, issues-centered approach.