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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Stress Management Techniques That Actually Work

Stressful events occur all day long, whether it’s a morning traffic jam, a cranky toddler, or a rush to get dinner on the table. We're always working to counteract feelings of stress. And some of us have to work at it a bit harder than others. Stress can become physically and mentally exhausting, influencing our relationships, work, and daily activities. If stress has become a problem in your life, it may be wise to learn a few stress management techniques to help tame your stress and regain control.

Mastering Stress

The first step in overcoming stress, is better understanding its phases and the effects that each of them has on you both physically and emotionally. The phases of stress can be categorized as peak performance, balance, strain, burnout, and breakdown.

  1. Peak Performance: You are at your best in this phase. Your energy levels are good, you're enthusiastic, and excited about your life.

  2. Balance: You're coping well and getting by from day to day. You may feel exhausted at the end of the day but are able to rebound after a short recharging period.

  3. Strain: You're managing. By the end of the day you are absolutely wiped out and you find it difficult to recharge your batteries and start again.

  4. Burnout: You're running on empty. Your concentration is suffering, your apathetic about your life, job, and relationships. You're tired from morning to night and you feel as though your breaking point is just around the next corner.

  5. Breakdown: You literally break down and stop functioning emotionally. This phase requires extensive healing, possibly even hospitalization.

Stress Management Techniques

Now that you understand a bit more about how stress can affect you, it's time to learn about some stress management techniques that can be used to keep stress from building up and dampening your physical and emotional state.

Time Management

The first thing you can do to manage stress is cut back on the number of obligations in your life. You simply can't squeeze every meeting, project, school activity, and social event into the time you're given each day. (And wishing for more time isn't going to help either.) Take control of your daily life by prioritizing your obligations so that you're sure to get to the things that are most important to you finished. Managing your time is a skill that can be mastered, just like riding a bike or driving a car. Here are a few pointers:

  • Keep a daily "to do" list and highlight the obligations that are a top priority. (This should be no more than two out of every ten items.)

  • Reserve your most important tasks for the hours of the day when you are most productive. (Some people are best in the morning, others right after lunch.)

  • Plan to tackle mundane or routine tasks in the hours when you are typically in a lull. (Schedule a haircut for right after lunch.)

  • Leave enough wiggle room in your daily calendar to accommodate crises, and last minute emergencies.

Relaxation Techniques

Despite our best efforts at planning and scheduling, there will still be times when a stressful event or circumstance gets the best of you. For these times, there are several stress management techniques that you can use to keep stress under control.

  • Deep Breathing: Breathing seems simple enough, but in reality, most of us are doing it very wrong. Poor posture often leads to the habit of taking rapid, shallow breaths that fill only the upper cavity of the chest. Proper breathing should be slow, deep, and controlled, and each breath should fill the tummy (or the diaphragm) followed by the lower chest and then the upper chest. Just five to ten minutes of deep breathing exercises can help to calm the mind and spirit and relax the body.

  • Guided Imagery: This technique is really just another method of day dreaming, except that in these daydreams you only focus on positive images or events. The idea is that concentrating on a positive experience will lift the mood and reduce feelings of stress. To practice this technique, begin by closing your eyes and imagining a favorite object: a cat, a painting, a flower, or whatever. Then, very slowly, begin to take account of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with this object. Savor each new sense as you experience it. Continue with this imagery for as long as it takes for you to fully enjoy the moment. Then take a deep breath, open your eyes, and carry on with you day. (This method is obviously not recommended for every situation, (like when sitting in traffic, for example), but it may be just the ticket for dealing with a stressful midterm paper.

  • Acupuncture: Based on putting the body in to its proper state of harmony, acupuncture has had a successful history of improving health. So successful is the track record of acupuncture until western medicine is taking a fresh look at the merits of this treatment. If you’ve not visited an acupuncturist, now may be a good time to have your Chi energy put to work for you.

  • Progressive Relaxation: This technique helps to handle emotional stress by counteracting physical stresses on the body. By slowly working through the body's major muscle groups and tensing and relaxing each one individually, you can learn to feel the difference between tension and deep relaxation. This method helps keep the body in tune with the mind and is great for relieving chronic stress.

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