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by Barry Tigay, Ph.D.

For many of us, stress and anxiety have become so much a part of our daily experience that we fail to notice its harmful effects. It can build up gradually over days, weeks and months until eventually, we recognize symptoms of emotional or behavioral disturbance.

There are both physical and cognitive effects of stress. Physical effects include tight muscles, rapid and shallow breathing, increased blood pressure and heart rate , adrenaline secretion and sweating. Cognitive effects can include difficulty concentrating and memory problems.

Anxiety can be a disorder in its own right in the form of psychophysiological disorders, phobias and panic attacks. It is also the engine, or driving force behind such disorders as self medicating by substance abuse, performance of obsessive compulsive rituals, domestic violence, and eating disorders.

While stress is at times unavoidable and often even desirable (i.e. exciting and novel situations), it is necessary to develop techniques to manage stress so that it doesn't build to harmful levels. It is useful to think of ourselves as having a range of reactions to stress at its various levels. At the very lowest levels of stress we might feel peaceful and relaxed, although if we spend too much time at these low levels we might find that we are not challenging ourselves and we might not be productive.

At the highest stress levels we might be dysfunctional as the excess tension and energy is channeled into symptoms, as mentioned above.

In the middle, with moderate levels of stress,we might find an optimal level in which we are truly engaged in an active and productive life and yet not over that threshold where we cannot integrate our feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

Stress management techniques can be used to moderate the build up of stress. As stress levels rise throughout the day, we can employ our relaxation methods to reduce the build up and return to lower, more manageable levels. Our stress levels will again begin to rise after we finish practicing our exercises, but from a lower plateau. As the days and weeks pass, instead of experiencing ever increasing levels of stress, we can manage to contain the stress to tolerable levels below that threshold where symptoms of dysfunction occur.

We can learn to self monitor and become more in touch with our minds and bodies by practicing our stress management techniques on a regular basis. We can become more conscious and therefore have more choices available to us.

The key to effective stress management and relaxation is to learn to recognize the level of stress we are experiencing at any given moment. To be able to do this it is necessary that we become very relaxed and then notice the difference between the relaxed and tense state.

Stress Management Techniques

Relaxation training or progressive relaxation is a process of deliberately tensing and then relaxing oneself in order to learn to notice the difference between the two states. Here is a very brief example you can practice on your own.

Lay on the floor on your back. Inhale and hold your breath. Lift your feet about a foot off the ground. Raise your arms the same amount at your sides. Tense all of your muscles throughout your body. Hold for five seconds and then drop your arms and legs. Inhale slowly and become aware of the sense of relaxation coming over you. Exert no effort and imagine that you are melting into the floor. Do a mental inventory of your muscles. What do you feel? Which muscles feel noticeably different after relaxation? Breathe slowly and fully (see Breath below). Stretch. Think about how your muscles feel before and after relaxation. Repeat several times. Isolate individual muscles and practice them separately.

Meditation has been used for centuries to help calm the mind and body. Focusing on a sound, thought or image to the exclusion of all else tends to organize and integrate us and promote feelings of mastery control and unity. Prayer has been viewed as a form of meditation when individuals concentrate their attention on a thought or image.

Cognitive therapy has introduced the technique of reframing. Thoughts that lead to anxiety and stress are examined and altered to reduce their anxiety producing potential. Often, one anxious thought leads to another more anxiety producing thought and the individual is off to the races in generating more and more stress producing thoughts.

For example; a person thinks thought A:
          I am going to the party and I don't have anything nice to wear.

Followed by thought B:
          And people will notice and think I am a slob or a nerd.

Possibly followed by thought C:
          And I will lose friends and be an outcast.

And so it goes as the negativity takes over and anxiety rises. Reframing breaks the cycle by stopping at stage one and examining alternatives and consequences.

                    Two Part Stress Management Program:
                               1. Don't sweat the small stuff.
                               2. It's all small stuff.

Massage can help stretch and relax tight muscles. Learn to practice self massage. Notice the difference between tense and relaxed muscles. Try to carry the feeling of relaxation and looseness with you throughout the day.

Yoga combines stretching, breathing, and meditation. Training and practice in these techniques can be an excellent stress management program.

Breath control is a very effective stress management technique. It seems that when the breathing becomes slow and full other physical and cognitive changes occur that promote relaxation. Take some time to practice full relaxed breathing. A full breath begins with the diaphragm pushing downward so that the stomach pushes out. As the lungs fill the chest will expand. On the exhale the reverse occurs with the chest receding first and then the stomach. Concentrate on slow and deep breathing.

Heat promotes muscle relaxation. Hot baths, sauna, whirlpool and dry heat can be helpful parts of a relaxation program. Practice your other techniques such as meditation, stretching and breath control during and after using heat.

Exercise stretches muscles, deepens breathing and burns off accumulated stress. Immediately after exercise, focus on your breathing as it changes from the deep and rapid breathing  your body required during exertion. Feel it slow down and try to maintain its fullness and openness as you recover from your exercise. At this time also focus your mind on relaxation and stretch your muscles.

Practice full relaxation of twenty or thirty minutes daily. Also, try to practice a mini-relaxation response of a minute or so several times per day.

Planet Psych Links:

Bookstore: Stress Management

Topics: Stress Management




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