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Stress Management & Relaxation
Stress is a natural part of the human experience. In fact, stress can provide motivation and increase our performance. It is stress that helps us “psych up.”
But, too much stress results in DIS-stress. Psychological DIS-stress occurs when the demands in our life are greater than our internal resources. This amount of stress actually impairs our performance and interferes with our ability to think clearly. It is dis-stress that causes us to get “psyched out.”
Excessive levels of stress, left unchecked, can also result in symptoms of physical and mental illness. Chronic stress suppresses the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Have you ever noticed getting sick after mid-terms of finals? Stress is also associated with hypertension, heart disease, headaches, and cancer. Prolonged stress can also trigger depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms.
So, take steps to Manage Your Stress Before it Manages You!
Here are a few things to consider in Managing Your Stress
Step 1: Identify Your Values and Priorities
There are more things to do than there are hours in the day. That is often a fact of life. You only have certain amounts of physical and mental energy. It only makes sense to use that energy on the things you value the most — your priorities. To identify your priorities, consider the following exercise:
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Now, imagine having led a long and fulfilling life. You are taking time to look back on that life. What would you remember? What stands out to you? What would you value?
- Write those things down.
- Again, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. This time, imagine being told you have 6 months left on this planet. Think about: How would you spend your time? What would you want to do or experience?
- Write those things down.
The things you have written down reflect your values and priorities. There may be some differences between the long and short term responses — that's ok — they are all important.
Step 2: Clarify You Goals
You have probably thought about career or family goals before. But, to manage stress it is important to also consider personal life goals. For overall health and wellness, pay attention to your goals in the following areas:
- Occupational — vocational, career
- Intellectual — academics, skills, creativity
- Spiritual — values, ethics, morals, religion, guiding principles
- Social — family, community, environment
- Physical — fitness, nutrition, self-care, safety
- Emotional — mental health, sexual and emotional intimacy
For each area listed above, write down your long-term or life goal. Make sure your goal is consistent with the values/priorities you identified in Step 1...if it isn't, you may need to reconsider your goal...Post a copy of your goals in a prominent place – the refrigerator, your calendar, etc.
Now, write down one thing you can do in the next 48 hours to move you toward each of your life goals......
.......AND DO IT.
Step 3: Time Management
Traditional time management often involves filling up every space in a calendar or daily planner with items from this list. This time, do something different.
- Make a list of your responsibilities, jobs, or chores.
- Get a 7 day weekly calendar.
- Block out time to sleep and eat.
- Add to your schedule ONLY the things that fit with your goals, values, and priorities. Write these in green. Make sure you include something from each life area identified in Step 2.
- Next, add the things you MUST do – like go to work or class. Write or highlight these in yellow.
- Now, add the rest of the things on your list – writing in red.
- Rework your schedule using the following:
- Is there enough time in the day to do it all? Realistically?
- Start with the red items, then the yellow. If something doesn't fit with your values, goals, priorities, get rid of it!
One of the most important aspects of time management is learning to say NO!
Step 4: Physical Self-Care
The body and mind are better equipped to handle stress when we are engaging in physical self-care. The body needs rest, nutrition, and exercise in order to respond effectively to emotional, psychological, and physical stress. In addition to your physical goals listed above, makes sure you are:
- Eating at regular intervals, ingesting a balanced diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and limiting intake of caffeine, alcohol, and sugar.
- Sleeping at least 6-8 hours per night. The body does not "catch up" from all-nighters by excessive sleeping on the weekend.
- Engaging in regular exercise. It can be as little as a 10 minute walk — but exercise helps reduce stress and energize the body and mind.
Step 5: Social and Emotional Support
Humans are social creatures. Research has shown that people with social support are less likely to experience symptoms of DIS-stress than those with limited support. Reaching out to others is an important element of stress management. Consider the following:
- Who can you talk to about the different parts of your life?
- Who will listen without judgment or trying to "fix it"?
- Who will understand your stress in each life area?
- Who do you trust to keep your information private?
- Would it be helpful to talk to a professional?
- You are not in it alone.
Step 6: Healthy Thinking
How we think about our life situation can significantly impact how we feel and how we act.
- If we look for the worst in a situation, we will find it, and feel bad.
- If we ignore the positives and focus on the negatives, we will feel overwhelmed.
- If we believe everyone is thinking negatively about us, we will feel anxious and suspicious.
Often times our thoughts are "irrational" or "dysfunctional." The good news is, we can challenge our thoughts, see things more realistically, feel better emotionally, and make better choices.
For more information on challenging your thoughts, see:
Step 7: Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques capitalize on the connection between DIS-stress and physical responses. Consciously controlling your breath, muscle tension, and mental focus can significantly reduce both the physical and psychological symptoms of stress. See the following sites for more information, including training videos.
- Relaxation Exercises – SUNY College of Oneonta — Guided relaxation exercises including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and visualization options.
- Relaxation Audio Sessions – UNC Chapel Hill — Relaxation audio sessions including breath work, muscle relaxation, body scan, and mindfulness.
- Stress Management and Reduction – University of Texas — Information and coping skills related to stress management. You may follow the guided program or explore the site on your own. Includes videos on deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga.