By Michael Proctor
With the sustenance of the Thanksgiving holiday in our hearts—and under our belts—we are ready to shift into high gear for the next celebration, party or event. Although we go through this every year, planning to accomplish a long list of tasks, taking on extra responsibilities, filling up our social calendars and depleting our finances, most of us are still learning how to do it without succumbing to stress.
Inevitable as it may be, stress provides the opportunity to renew the imagination, to stretch ourselves. This stretching can lead to growth—emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical. Stress can be a positive motivator with a built in reward system. Exercising our stress response may be as important as exercising our cardiovascular system or immune response. We need stress, up to a point. Stress is not a disorder. It is our physical, emotional and biochemical responses to stress which may bring us out of balance and into discomfort, illness or disease.
Have you noticed how many different responses we have to stress? When we are not managing stress well, we might feel anger, frustration, anxiety, lethargy, giddiness, or any number of other emotional responses. Initially, stress responses may increase physical strength and mental acuity, but unmanaged chronic stress may compromise important physical and mental functions.
There is no lack of information about stress management techniques and practices; the difficulty for many of us is in finding what works for our personal situation and then actually using those methods on a regular basis. I like to think of stress management techniques in two basic categories: proactive practices and behaviors (healthy lifestyle), and quick results (immediate response—sort of like first aid).
I will not get into the proactive category of stress management in this short article, but instead will focus on some quick relief ideas. I’m not skipping over these things because they are less important; practicing lifestyle and behavior changes is a process that can last a lifetime. We mostly know what changes we want or need to make in order to be able to manage stress—sleeping well, eating well, exercising, managing time, engaging in spiritual practice, hobbies, and so forth. The more you practice proactive stress management, the better your “quick results” methods will work. Journaling is one proactive practice that will serve the purpose of helping you keep track of what your challenges are and what stress management techniques bring you results.
What are the “quick results” methods? There are plenty of possibilities! Practice different things to discover what works best for you in different situations. Some stressors can be “walked away from” and some cannot. Sometimes stress is unrelenting and other times it comes in manageable intervals. So it is good to have a variety of “quick results” methods ready, and equally important to recognize the stressor for what it is.
- Breathing is not so simple under stress, and may be the first thing to become aware of in order to get through the moment. Counting to a comfortable number (seven, perhaps) on the inhale and exhale may be all that it takes to begin balancing your stress response. Try diaphragmatic breathing to stop your “huffy” breathing. You can follow your breath to a meditative state later, or you can practice Pranayama, the Ayurvedic method of controlled breathing…but right now, just pay attention to your breath and count.
- Exercise can be a stress reducer in some situations. Taking a brisk walk—or a slow one, for that matter—may help, even in the rain! If you can’t take a walk, try squeezing some modeling clay…. okay, that’s not aerobic exercise, but it might work for you. Practice slow, steady breathing as you’re vigorously squeezing. You may end up with an interesting piece of art…or not.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation involves tensing or flexing muscles (10 seconds) followed by relaxing the same muscles (20 seconds), repeating with specific muscle groups throughout the body. This takes at least five minutes to do properly, but once learned and practiced, can be used as a whole body method that can work in secondsCognitive Restructuring is a method that works well in many types of stressful situations. Some folks call it an “attitude adjustment”; the idea is to mentally place the stressor in a new frame of reference, replacing negative thoughts with rational, positive ones. This takes some study and practice, but becomes simple and effective after a while. You can learn to become an optimist if you desire it.
- Visualizations usually involve closing your eyes and imagining yourself in different surroundings. You may create a picture of bliss that is so compelling, you can affect your biochemistry (e.g. hormones and neurotransmitters) in a positive way. As with other methods, practice makes it possible to apply visualization techniques very quickly with good results.
- Nutrients and Herbs can get quick results. Long term, proper nutrition and nourishing, sustaining herbs are important, but we are talking here about the “lighten up quick” approach. Nutrients that might be used to relieve stress rapidly include the B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium. Amino acids used in managing stress response include l-tryptophan and l-theanine. Herbs commonly used for acute stress include valerian, passionflower, hops, chamomile, kava and oats.
- Homeopathic Medicines are available as over the counter remedies that aim for specific and rapid results, without side effects or contraindications. Examples are “Calms” and “Sedalia”. Flower essences are a kind of homeopathic remedy. The best known is “Rescue Remedy” which can bring physical or emotional trauma toward resolution in a matter of seconds.
- PLAY! Not the acronym, the real thing. Playing doesn’t always have to take time and planning. When stress is overwhelming you, try letting out your “inner child” out to play. Not the whiny one, though; the child who is inquisitive, imaginative, silly, impulsive. Let out the sculptor, singer, drummer, daredevil, the athlete. Tell a joke, have a treat, ask for a hug! Rememer to give yourself a “time out” when you need it.
Whatever the events that bring you together with family and friends this winter, pay attention to the kids, who recognize stress long before adults do, and very often know what to do about it…if only we’d let them