We are grateful to Dr. Susan Bennett, Gaudiani Clinic Clinical Advisor, for her guest post. 

Stress…we all have it.  There is beneficial stress (eustress), which often brings positive results, and then there is distress, which can take its toll.  A few examples of good stress are:  exercise, enjoying a scary movie, riding a rollercoaster (if you like it), buying a new home, etc.  Some examples of distress are: loss, financial trouble, negative work environment, partner problems, etc. Eustress generally produces a good feeling while distress produces an unpleasant feeling.  And then there are combinations such as the eustress experienced by buying the new home and the distress experienced by the associated expenses and move.

With everything going on in the world today and the demands placed upon us at work and at home, we cannot avoid bad stress.  Sometimes, just driving across town and walking into the grocery store is enough to cause an unhealthy stress response. Having some tools to help manage “distress” can be very beneficial to wellbeing.

Below I have listed my 10 favorite stress reduction strategies. Let me first acknowledge that everyone is different and what is effective for one person isn’t always effective for another.  I encourage you to give each of these a try to find the strategies that are most effective for you.

1)    Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).  Many of us carry our stress in our muscles.  For some it will be the shoulders and neck, for some in the head (headache), and others lower back. I’m sure you know where you are vulnerable. PMR is the practice of tensing a group of muscles for a period (e.g., 10 seconds) and then relaxing them.  This is often done a couple of times to each muscle group as you move from the top of the body to your feet. It is remarkable how relaxing it can be. You can Google PMR (spell it out or you’ll be led to unrelated results).  There are good web videos that can include background music to relax and guide you through the steps.

2)    Diaphragmatic Breathing.  I’m sure you might have heard of deep breathing or belly breathing.  These are different terms for the same thing—breathing in a way that engages the diaphragm (an important muscle for efficient and effective breathing). Often, when we are stressed the breath becomes shallow. We know this by paying attention to our ribs, chest, and shoulders. If they are rising and falling, we are breathing shallow. If we are breathing in deeply by using our diaphragm, our belly blows up like a balloon on the inbreath and flattens on the outbreath—there is no movement in these other areas. Five minutes of diaphragmatic breathing can be very soothing and is also good for pain management. If you are new to this type of breathing, you will be getting more oxygen and might feel lightheaded at first. You may also be breathing too fast and need to slow down by making sure you are breathing in very slowly through your nose and exhaling slowly through your mouth. You well find good instructions on the internet to guide you.

3)    Guided Imagery/Visualization. Stressful times can be an excellent time to use our imaginations to create a peaceful, relaxing sanctuary that can be entered at any time. For some it might be a dense forest with a babbling brook, for others it may be a seascape. Some might want to create the good feelings they felt at a music venue.  Whatever you identify, this place is yours and can be created in the mind whenever stress reduction is needed. It is important to use as much detail as possible so all your senses are engaged. Make it real. Smell the smells, see colors and light qualities, feel textures, hear the sounds, and perhaps there is something to taste.  The possibilities are endless, and a safe, relaxing place is always available in your imagination. Take 5 or 10 minutes to develop your escape so it is available when you need it most.

4)    Music. Take time to sit in a peaceful room and listen to relaxing music while breathing deeply.

5)    Soaking. Take a hot bath with added aromatherapy bath oil or salts. “Calgon, Take Me Away” was a popular saying in the 1970s. It all began with a television commercial that showed a super stressed-out woman who took a bath after adding Calgon water softener and subsequently escaped the effects of her stressful day while soaking in all the bubbles. These days we get great bath bombs, essential oils and salts, and I believe you can still buy scented Calgon. You can also use visualization and/or deep breathing effectively while soaking. Close your eyes, smell the aromatherapy, and relax for as long as you need.

6)    Exercise. Movement can be a wonderful stress reduction strategy. This is not the time to do hill intervals or any kind of intense workout. Go for a slow walk or jog in nature. Notice your surroundings and breathe deep. Pay attention to every movement. A lower key yoga or gentle stretching routine can be helpful. 

7)    Water. Sit next to moving water in a safe place.  For example, this could be a small table top fountain in your home, a water feature, a creek, or by the ocean.  Listen to the sounds, notice how they change and breathe deeply. Five minutes can make a big difference.

8)    Walking Meditation. This activity will increase mindfulness and decrease stress. It is very intentional. You will never walk this slowly anywhere, and you choose the ultimate pace and where it feels safe to do it.  It can be your living room or outdoors—a quiet place that is not too public. Begin with hands folded together in front of you resting below the chest and feet together. Pay attention to your breathing and feel the floor or ground beneath your feet. You will want enough space for 10 paces; at the end you will turn and walk back. With eyes open, walk very slowly and take in your surroundings. Breathe slowly with each step. When you take your step, your forward foot meets the ground heal first until the entire foot is in contact with the ground. Don’t lift the back foot to stride forward until the forward foot is completely flat on the ground. It’s super slow and is an acquired skill. Stay with it and commit 10 minutes each time you use this tool.     

9)    Alternate Nostril Breathing. You will raise eyebrows if attempting to do this in a public place, so find a quiet place to practice. For some people, this technique is even more relaxing than deep breathing. It won’t work if you have nasal congestion. You practice by completing the following steps for 10 cycles:

  • Find a comfortable seat.
  • Place your left palm in your lap.
  • With your right hand, bring your pointer finger to rest between your eyebrows as an anchor. You will be using your thumb and middle finger in this exercise.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly.
  • Close the left nostril with your middle finger so now both nostrils are held closed.
  • Lift your thumb to open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right nostril.
  • Slowly inhale through the right nostril.
  • Hold both nostrils closed again with middle finger and thumb.
  • Open and release breath slowly through the left nostril.  
  • Repeat 10 times.

10) Sitting Meditation. If you already meditate you know that the practice can be relaxing, but it can also be anxiety provoking especially when you are new to it. Because we want to focus on stress reducing strategies, I will add more structure, to get you started, by introducing you to a guided meditation using a count. Find a comfortable place on a cushion on the floor or on a chair.  On the cushion, your legs will be crossed. In the chair, your shoes will be off with feet flat on the floor.  Rest your hands on your legs and sit straight. Close your eyes and take several deep, cleansing breaths. Next, with a normal breath, breathe in and breathe out and silently count “one.” Repeat and on the outbreath silently count “two.” Continue this process to the count of “nine” and then repeat from “one” to “nine” again.  Anytime thoughts start to creep in and interrupt the count, start over at “one.” For instance, you get to “five” and start thinking about work. It’s okay—don’t fight it. Simply start over with your “one” count. Try this for 5 minutes and increase as you become comfortable with the time sitting.  There are many ways to start a meditation practice and this is only one way. With time, you will no longer need the count to help quiet the mind.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help reduce or ameliorate stress. The biggest challenge with these strategies is remembering that they are available at any time. This seems obvious, but a lot of times we haven’t practiced, so when we need the skill it isn’t readily available. Also, if particularly stressed, we sometimes just forget what’s available to us. It is important to frequently practice the strategies that work best for you so you can access them quickly when needed.  They are also good for self-care even when you are not stressed.

I hope you find one or several that are helpful to you.