After all of the information we have provided about stress and its causes in our STRESS series, it is finally time to offer you some tips and tools to effectively manage and reduce stress. As we explored in our previous post, there are both internal and external triggers that can result in chronic stress. While these types of triggers are fundamentally different, when practiced diligently, any stress management or reduction technique will result in relief, regardless of what is causing your chronic stress. As such, we will offer two types of reduction techniques; cognitive and physical. Keep reading to determine which of these strategies you feel are the best fit for you and your lifestyle, then choose a couple and start practicing to find the relief you’ve been longing for.
Cognitive Stress Management Strategies
1) Challenging Cognitive Distortions: before we get into this one, we must first explain what a ‘cognitive distortion’ is. Cognition, of course, has to do with our thought processes. A cognitive distortion can be characterized as a flaw in our thinking pattern, or erroneous thinking. In this context, cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts that create a negative self image, perpetuate stress, and lead to anxiety and depression. Regardless of what the initial stress trigger may have been, such negative thinking patterns will only exacerbate the problem and worsen symptoms until the problem grows even larger.
Some examples of cognitive distortions include:
- All or nothing thinking: ‘if it isn’t perfect, it is trash.’
- Negative Bias: only paying attention to negative information in your surroundings and discounting the positive. Ex. Getting 85% on an exam is not an A, it is 15% away from full marks.
- Jumping to conclusions: ‘he didn’t complement me on my dress, he must think I look terrible.’
- Labeling: losing one soccer game and dubbing oneself; ‘a loser.’
- Magnification: making mountains out of mole hills. Catastrophizing a situation with minimal information or ignoring the actual facts.
- Emotional Reasoning: assuming that because you feel a certain way, it must be true. Ex. ‘I am terrified of flying, therefore, it must be dangerous.’
Countering Cognitive Distortions: the solution to this problem involves what we call ‘cognitive restructuring;’ replacing the negativity of our flawed thinking with something productive and solution-focused. There are several ways to do this. Here are some examples:
1- Coping thoughts: this involves positive self-talk and self-soothing. Think of yourself as your own coach or biggest supporter. Be kind and patient with yourself instead of beating yourself up when things (that are largely out of your control) go wrong. The following are good examples of coping thoughts: “take a deep breath and relax, I am going to organize my time and make this deadline, no one is right, no one is wrong, we just have different need, bottom line, I’m in control. I can control what gets done…”
2- Problem Solving: it is impossible to effectively problem solve when we are stressed. This is why we must establish a problem solving strategy before adversity hits us, so that we have a go-to plan we could execute when the need strikes. Your go-to problem-solving plan should look something like this:
a) Identify the problem: determine precisely what it is about any given situation that is causing you distress. It could be multifaceted. Get everything down on paper.
b) Brainstorm many possible solutions: jot down as many possible solutions to your problem(s) as you can. Again, everything you can think of should be written down.
c) Evaluate the best solution: once you have your brainstormed list of potential solutions, study it and determine which one would be the best for you given your current situation and available resources.
Challenging cognitive distortions by practicing coping thoughts and effective problem solving will go a long way in ensuring you do not perpetuate your unpleasant stress symptoms, and have a positive impact on your emotional and mental health in general.
These strategies have to do with calming the body which in turn, has a profound calming effect on the mind. When practiced consistently and correctly, their positive effect are tremendous.
1) Deep Breathing: to do this correctly, sit comfortably in a chair and dedicate a predetermined amount of time to your breathing. Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your belly. Then, slowly (and deeply) breathe in feeling your belly expand first, then your chest, and breathe out feeling your chest compress first, then our belly. The hands are used to facilitate learning to involve both the belly and chest in the deep breathing exercise. Relaxed breathing is known to stem from the belly. If you notice a baby’s breathing, you will see that they always breathe by expanding and releasing their bellies. Once you have mastered proper deep breathing, you could incorporate it into your busy day without necessarily having to take a time out to sit and breathe (although we do encourage you to do this as well).
2) Meditation: the all-encompassing health benefits of meditation are endless. When it comes to relaxation however, few things can compare to the positive effects of meditation. Learn about the practice by searching the web, picking up a book, or inquiring about our meditation group here at Evolution Psychology Center. Opening their minds and hearts to this practice has resulted in incredibly positive outcomes for many people, as well as the opportunity for profound self-discovery. We encourage you to try it for yourself and see what arises.
3) Progressive Relaxation: progressive relaxation involves tensing muscle groups of the body, holding them in this tensed state for a moment, and then releasing them. You could do this my lying down and progressively tensing different muscle groups beginning in your feel and moving your way up to the face and head, or chose one muscle group and contract/ release at your own pace, in whatever setting you feel comfortable with. Progressive relaxation nicely represent the idea of ‘the stress ball.’ I always have one on my desk to use when the tension builds.
4) Guided Imagery: whether you use a recording or refer to a mental image or ‘happy place’ that brings you peace and serenity, guided imagery could go a long way to calm the body and mind. For the greatest benefits, think of your chosen image in great detail; the sights, sounds, smells, bodily sensations it involved (the feel of the sun on your skin for example). Individuals who practice this kind of imagery daily have reported greater positive emotional states, less stress, and a greater general sense of well being.
5) Regular exercise: it is no secret that exercise serves as the body’s best natural stress reliever. When we engage in physical activity, our bodies release endorphins and other neurochemicals that have a stress-relieving effect on the body and mind. Stretching actually has a very similar effect on the body as well. If you could incorporate even as little as 15 minutes of physical activity in your day, you will be surprised by how much of a positive effect it can have on your emotional well-being.
6) Proper self care: alright, we aren’t telling you to get to the spa in a hurry or take a three-week vacation (although definitely go for it if you can!) but what we mean here by engaging in proper self-care is ensuring you get the bare minimum; adequate sleep (8 hours per day), proper nutrition, and daily rest (even if this is 10 minutes of alone time to collect your thoughts). Practice these three basic pillars of self-care daily and you should see a positive difference in your stress level and ability to effectively manage it or problem solve. You may not believe it, but not getting enough sleep or nutritious fueling wreaks havoc on the body and mind. Think of a screaming toddler who missed nap time. Adults experience that kind of ego-depletion too, only without the whaling and tantrums (in most cases).
A final note on stress management:
There are a few more general tips we like to promote when it comes to effectively managing and reducing stress. These always help us take a step back and put things into perspective.
- Learn to let go
- Take breaks
- Know and respect your limits
- Be decisive
- Avoid being a perfectionist
- Establish & respect your priorities
- Stop procrastinating
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle
We hope you have found this post helpful and that you will continue to enhance your health and well being by practicing some of these stress management strategies. Remember, if you feel like you are becoming overwhelmed and cannot handle everything on your plate with the resources you have, you could always see a professional to help you weather the storm get you back on track. We are here for your every wellness need, call us anytime..