Stress Management and Relaxation
Are you Stressed or Anxious
Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety
There are several signs and symptoms that you may notice when you are experiencing stress and anxiety. These signs and symptoms fall into four categories: Feelings, Thoughts, Behavior, and Physiology. When you are under stress, you may experience one or more of the following:
- Wound up
- Low self-esteem
- Fear of failure
- Inability to concentrate
- Embarrassing easily
- Hazy thinking
- Mental blocking
- Worrying about the future
- Preoccupation with thoughts/tasks
- Stuttering and other speech difficulties.
- Crying for no apparent reason.
- Acting impulsively.
- Startling easily.
- Laughing in a high pitch and nervous tone of voice.
- Grinding your teeth.
- Increasing smoking, use of drugs and alcohol.
- Being accident prone.
- Losing your appetite or overeating.
- Perspiration/sweaty hands.
- Increased heart beat.
- Nervous ticks.
- Dryness of throat and mouth.
- Tiring easily.
- Urinating frequently.
- Sleeping problems.
- Butterflies in stomach.
- Pain in the neck and or lower back.
- Loss of appetite or overeating.
- Susceptibility to illness.
Stress and anxiety are often a normal human reaction to life’s ups and downs. It is important to take care of yourself when you are feeling this way. Caring for yourself can take many forms, and you can customize your self care to exactly meet your needs.
Juggling Multiple Roles
Increasingly, students are not just students. In addition to your academic demands, it is likely you are caring for children, aging parents, and/or have a partner. You may also be an employee or employer, friend, sister, brother, daughter, pet owner, and general jack-of-all trades around the house in addition to a student. Keeping all of these balls in the air while meeting academic expectations can wear down the hardest working and most efficient individual. Juxtapose this with the US’s often unrealistic social expectations of “having it all,” and you have the recipe for high stress and lack of fulfillment.
So, what to do?
Practice self-compassion. There is no-way, no-how that all of the demands in your life will be met perfectly, or even adequately, all of the time. And this does not mean that you are a failure, shouldn’t be in school (or taking on any other role you care about), or that things will be unbearably miserable until you graduate. Self-compassion means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend who is having a bad day… talking nicely to yourself, letting go of guilt, doing something kind for yourself, and allowing yourself to begin again with a fresh start tomorrow. Practicing self-compassion means stopping yourself when you begin to become self-critical or nasty to yourself, and gently reminding yourself that there is a better way. Expect to practice a lot, because for most people self-compassion is hard to develop after years of being our own worst enemies.
Build a support system. Ask for help AND allow others to help you. The “it takes a village” concept applies here! Rather than perpetuating the “super hero” role in your life all of the time, allow others to step in. You can, and will, return the favor later. This means everything from enlisting your family’s help in cooking and cleaning to having a good friend to vent to after a long day. Remember how great you feel when you are able to help someone? Consider this an opportunity for you to foster that rosy glow in others.
Assess your priorities, set limits and say no. Take a step back and look at the big picture. What are your top five priorities and goals for this time in your life? What kinds of things are low priorities but somehow creep into your day when you can least afford it? It is smart and responsible to refuse to take on things that interfere with what is really important in your life. These things may be toxic people, time wasting activities, or things that you care about but can get to later. Imagine that your time and energy is a pie. Who and what get slices of you? And what size slice to you need to keep to nourish yourself?
Determine your own standards. Giving up perfectionistic or idealistic notions of success is critical when it comes to fully living a full life and meeting your goals. It’s okay to compromise on some things so that you can put your time and energy where it counts.
Take time for yourself. Remember that slice of the pie that you need to nourish yourself? That slice contains things like sleep, good food, exercise, relaxation, and recharging your spirit. Do an assessment of how you typically unwind and evaluate if those activities truly leave you feeling refreshed, or if they are numbing and/or draining you. Find activities that lift you up and discard those that bring you down or simply do not invigorate you. Make what little time you feel you have for yourself count.
Get organized. Calendars, to-do lists, alerts on your cell phone… use the tools available to you to manage your life and your time. The beginning of a new semester is the perfect opportunity to create an overview of the upcoming months and plan ahead, but you can also do this at any point. Feel too overwhelmed to stop to organize? Do it anyway… odds are, you will be more effective and efficient after an afternoon of getting your ducks in a row as well as feel better about what lies ahead.
Embrace flexibility and the likelihood of life being, well, life. Okay, you are now all organized, but the car breaks down, the cat needs to go to the vet, your child suddenly must wear a costume to school tomorrow, and you have a paper due. Take a deep breath (or 50), scream into a pillow, and then do a quick assessment. What is the first priority? The second? The third? What do you need to do yourself and what can you delegate to someone else or totally let go? Congratulations… pat yourself on the back and celebrate! You just embraced being flexible. It may not have been fun and no one may be 100% pleased, but you made it through and now can practice self-compassion per number one above.
Remember the importance of quality over quantity. Especially when it comes to relationships, quality time is more important than quantity time. Put away the books and smartphone during “dates” with your partner, family, kids, and friends. Look them in the eye, listen to them, and connect. A caring twenty minute conversation on the couch is a win for everyone, while “uh-huh-ing” for two hours while you check emails and try to study leaves everyone frustrated.
Approach your many hats as opportunities, not threats. The way you think about all of the demands on your time goes a long way towards how stressful you will perceive your situation. What are the benefits of your full life? Viewing your context as full of opportunities, progress towards a brighter future, or even simply a good excuse to skip cleaning the toilet for two months can lift your spirits and your energy for tackling the next thing.
Just do the next right thing. Breaking down a large project or many demands into bite-sized, manageable chunks that you tackle one at a time goes a long way to reducing stress levels and making tangible progress on a goal. And give yourself permission to allow “take a break” or “ask for help” to be the next right thing.
Need additional ideas or support? The TWU Counseling Center offers 12 free sessions of individual therapy each academic year to enrolled students. A therapist can help you implement the ideas in this handout, provide an objective sounding board for support, or create your own individualized plan for lower stress and improve life satisfaction. See below for contact information and call to schedule an intake appointment today.
Meditation and Relaxation
Meditation is a very effective method of relaxation. The idea of meditation is to focus your thoughts on one relaxing thing for a sustained period of time. This rests your mind by diverting it from thinking about the problems that have caused stress. It gives your body time to relax and recuperate and clear away toxins that may have built up through stress and mental or physical activity. Meditation slows breathing, reduces blood pressure, helps muscles relax, gives the body time to eliminate lactic acid and other waste products, reduces anxiety, eliminates stressful thoughts, helps with clear thinking, helps with focus and concentration, reduces irritability, and reduces stress headaches.
The essence of meditation is to quiet your thoughts by focusing completely on just one thing. Unlike hypnosis, which is more of a passive experience, meditation is an active process which seeks to exclude outside thoughts by concentrating all mental faculties on the subject of meditation. In all cases it helps if your body is relaxed. It should be in a position that you can comfortably sustain for a period of time (20 - 30 minutes is ideal). Sitting in a comfortable chair, lying on a bed, or the lotus position may be equally effective. A number of different focuses of concentration may be used. Which one you choose is a matter of personal taste. Some of these are detailed below:
A useful method may be to focus your attention on your breathing. Concentrate on breaths in and out. You can accompany this by counting your breaths using the numbers 0 to 9. You can visualize images of the numbers changing with each breath. Alternatively you could visualize health and relaxation flowing into your body when you inhale, and stress or pain flowing out when you exhale.
Focusing on an object
Here you completely focus attention on examination of an object. Look at it in immense detail for the entire meditation. Examine the shape, color differences, texture, temperature and movement of the object. Objects often used are flowers, candle flames or flowing designs. However, you can use other objects equally effectively (e.g. alarm clocks, desk lamps, or even coffee mugs!)
Focus on a sound
Some people like to focus on sounds. The classic example is the Sanskrit word 'Om', meaning 'perfection'. Whether or not this is practical depends on your lifestyle.
This can be a very refreshing and pleasant way of meditating. Here you create a mental image of a pleasant and relaxing place in your mind. Involve all your senses in the imagery: see the place, hear the sounds, smell the aromas, feel the temperature and the movement of the wind. Enjoy the location in your mind.
In all cases it is important to keep your attention focused. If external thoughts or distractions wander in, let them drift out. If necessary, visualize attaching the thoughts to objects and then move the objects out of your attention. You may find that your attention keeps breaking as you worry that time is running out. In this case it may be easiest to set an alarm to go off when you should stop meditating. You will find that as you practice meditation your attention will improve.
SOME BRIEF RELAXATION EXERCISE
For all of these exercises, it is best to be seated, eyes closed, feet flat on the floor or crossed at the ankles and hands resting comfortably in the lap. Begin each exercise with a deep breath that you let out gently. As you let it out, feel yourself beginning to relax already. Gentle Arousal: After the exercise, slowly and gently activate by breathing a little more deeply, wiggling your fingers and toes, and opening your eyes at your own rate.
Tense-Relax. Clench your fists. While keeping them clenched, pull your forearms tightly up against your upper arms. While keeping those muscles tense, tense all the muscles in your legs. While keeping all those tense, clench your jaws and shut your eyes fairly tight -- not too tightly. Now, while holding all those tense, take a deep breath and hold it for 5 seconds . . . . Then, let everything go all at once. Feel yourself letting go of all your tensions. Just enjoy that feeling for a minute, as your muscles let go more and more.
Actually, if we had a finely-tuned electromyograph hooked up to you measuring the level of tension in your muscles, it would show that you relax more and more and more for up to 20 minutes. Just enjoy focusing, gently, on the letting go (Arouse gently).
Heaviness and Warmth. Just imagine that your feet and legs are getting heavier and heavier and warmer and warmer. It's almost as if you are wearing some lead boots. Feet and legs, heavy and warm, heavy and warm. Now, imagine your stomach and the whole central portion of your body getting warm. . . warm and relaxed. My forehead is cool. . . cool. . . relaxed and cool. And my breathing is regular. . . easy and regular. Just feel the warm and heaviness spread all over the body. (Arouse gently).
Breathing Your Body Away. Gently focus your attention on your feet and legs. Be aware of all the sensations from your feet and legs. Now, inhale a long, slow breath, and as you do, breathe in all the sensations from your feet and legs. In your minds eye, imagine that you are erasing this part of your body. Now, as you exhale, breathe out all those sensations. Once again, breathe in your feet and legs, and exhale it from your body, so that, in your mind, you can see only from your hips up. Now, with another long breath, breathe in all the parts of your body to your neck, and, as you exhale, breathe it away.
Now, beginning with your fingers, breathe in your fingers, hands, wrists and arms, and exhale them away. Now, your neck and head as you breathe in, imagine your neck and head being erased, and now breathe them away. Let's go back over the whole body in one breath, beginning with the feet. A long slow breath in, and as you do, erase any little parts that still remain Now, a long slow breath out, as you exhale all the remaining parts. Now, just sit quietly for a minute and enjoy feeling yourself relax deeper and deeper. (Gently arouse).
A Favorite Scene, Place, or Person. As you're sitting quietly, recall, in your mind, the most relaxing thought you can. Perhaps it's a favorite place (a vacation spot or favorite retreat of some sort; or it might be a person with whom you feel at peace, or some scene -- a meadow, or whatever works for you). Take a few seconds to get that in mind... Now, see or imagine that in your mind. Be sure to feel those good feelings you have when you are in that place. Just let them take over your whole awareness... If your thoughts wander, just take them gently back to that peaceful, relaxing place. (Arouse gently).
Ideal Relaxation. With your eyes closed, take a moment to create, in your mind's eye, an ideal spot for relaxation. You can make it any place real or imagined and furnish it any way that you want. Wear the clothes you are most comfortable in. Enjoy, now, in your own mind, going there. You'll want to feel at ease and mellow as you lounge in your ideal place for relaxation. Just enjoy it for a minute... (Gentle arousal).
Cool Air In, Warm Air Out. With your eyes closed, and while relaxing quietly, gently focus on the end of your nose. As you breathe in, feel the air coming in the tip of your nose. As you breathe out, feel the air coming out of the tip of your nose.... Notice that the air coming in is cooler than the air going out... Gently focus on the cool air coming in, and the warm air going out. As your attention wanders, just gently bring it back to the tip of your nose... (Gentle arousal).
Focus on a Word. Pick some word which has "good" vibrations associated with it for you -- a word which you associate with relaxation, comfort, peace. It could be a word such as "serenity" or "cool, peaceful, joy, free", etc. ... Now, just let that word hold the center of your thoughts. As your mind wanders to more stressful thoughts, gently bring it back to that word... After awhile, perhaps your mind will drift to other gentling, restful thoughts. If so, just let it wander... When it does drift to stressful thoughts, bring it back to your original word. (Gentle arousal).
Something for Use Anywhere. With practice, you will become more adept at relaxing while awake, anywhere. As you do, here's a way to let yourself relax while going about your day. You can do it while walking, sitting in class, taking a test, on a date, etc. First, smile. Yes, smile, to remind yourself that you don't actually have all the cares of the world on your shoulders-- only a few of them. Then, take a long deep breath, and let it out. Now, take a second long deep breath and as you let it out, feel yourself releasing the tensions in your mind and in your body. Just let yourself relax more and more, as you continue whatever you were doing. (Gentle arousal).
Information provided by David G. Danskin; Kansas State University
Strategies for Coping with Stress
Try this breathing and attention-focusing exercise devised to cope with stress:
- Take a deep breath and let it go suddenly
- Tell oneself to relax
- Redirect attention to problem situation
- If anxiety recurs, repeat 1-3 again
Meichenbaum and Cameron (1974) urge the use of positive self-statements to reduce the threat of anxiety-provoking situations, including, for example:
- "I'm going to do well at this..."
- "I'm well prepared..."
- "I can handle this!"
- "My (ability, whatever) is as good as anyone else's here..."
- and so on...
Lazarus (1971) has described several methods for dealing with various stressful circumstances. These include:
- Getting into a comfortable position and saying to oneself calming phrases such as "feeling warm and relaxed," "totally at peace," "utterly calm," etc.
- Use of contrary questioning to undo worrying about consequences of inadequacy. Whenever tempted to ask oneself "what if ...," simply precede the statement with "so what if...," or "what is the worst thing that could happen if..."
- Countering anxious, even low mood moments by "projecting ahead in time." For example, when you are feeling in the midst of worrisome times, imagine ahead to a time when one might be in a "better place," engaging in more enjoyable behaviors, for instance, restfully enjoying music, basking in a change of season, a new skill or activity, new acquaintances, more pleasant places, and so on. One would do this gradually, projecting first to a week, then two weeks, a month, three months, etc., to about six months hence. At this point, you can reflect on that future time to give yourself the perspective that now is not forever.
- Use of "thought control," a technique for vigorously "bossing” one's adverse or troublesome thoughts around. It involves a vehement, assertive interruption of a negatively tinged thought pattern by shouting, out loud or silently, to oneself words like "STOP!" or "NO!" in the middle of an anxious series of worrying. This approach does work, but requires repetition over approximately a month's time.
Break out of the Type A habits. Type A behavior includes speaking fast, eating fast, constant competition, ignoring or denying tiredness, setting quotas, doing two things at once, pretending to listen, over scheduling, and clenching muscles in fists or jaws. You can systematically slow down your life and your drive.
Maintain adequate exercise, rest, and nutrition. Adequate exercise, rest, and nutrition are keys to developing your physical resistance to stress. Most specialists encourage vigorous exercise, including running, brisk walking, jumping rope, swimming, hiking, or active sports. Nutrition includes balanced dieting. Stress causes the body to use B and C vitamins rapidly and these vitamins may be used as supplements in coping with continuous stress.
Reappraise your schedule and habits: avoid stress-producing situations. Instead of scheduling to do as much as possible, schedule to maximize your enjoyment of life. Allow time to get places, time to enjoy the trip, time to reflect. Write down what you are trying to do now and what price you are paying in terms of discomfort, stress, and lack of enjoyment of life. Decide what you would find meaningful and try to plan a schedule that adds meaning. Practice saying, "No." Avoid stress-producing people and activities by design. Where this is impossible, reduce the stressful situation to a manageable level or consider a new environment altogether.
Problem solving instead of worrying. One decision-making approach involves the following steps:
- Determine your options in the situation that worries you.
- Look at the pros and cons of each option, separately, visualizing every aspect of choosing that particular alternative; then check out your feeling about choosing that particular option; go through this process for each alternative.
- Weigh your feelings about choosing the various alternatives against each other; go with the option about which you have the most positive feeling. Another approach: ask yourself: What do I want to do? What should I do? If there is a conflict between the two, ask: What is in my best interest to do? Make a decision and close the issue.
Talk out your worries. Discussing your concerns with an empathetic friend or with a competent professional helps get emotions out and provides you with emotional support. Verbalizing a problem with a person often helps you get a more objective view of your feelings and thoughts and helps you to see solutions more easily.
Focus on the present, not the past. If you made a mistake in the past, learn from it rather than blaming yourself for it. It is also important to give up old resentments rather than dwelling on them and making yourself miserable with them.
Remember that growth involves risk. Living does involve risk taking. This statement does not mean or suggest that a person take unnecessary or dangerous risks. However, to live means to be vulnerable. Consider your risk-taking behavior in the context of your current stress-related situation. Productive gains are possible only by commitment to a venture. Change is inevitable, but growth does not come automatically, without effort or without some risk.
Expand, explore, and experience your environment. Many of us live in very small worlds when other worlds are only a few steps away. Visit a place on campus or in the community where you have not been recently or at all. Get acquainted by using your senses of vision, hearing and taste. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings as you experience the new environment. Examples include visits to a laboratory, play rehearsal, courtroom, hospital emergency room, chapel, or cattle auction.
Save and use some "alone" time. Having time by yourself and for yourself can be very helpful in the management of tension. Use the time for reflection, for single person activity or for just "doing nothing." In other words, at various times, get in touch with your "you." Experience who you are by thinking, feeling, and being "you" in alone time.
Employ constructive time management procedures. Plan your day's activities. Construct a plan for the week Although we only have and know the here and now, scheduling in the present for what we plan to do in the future helps us to stay on top of work and play. Be knowledgeable of the responsibilities and opportunities before you. Plan ahead with flexibility, but do plan ahead.
Change your usual routine. On occasion, variation of our usual daily procedures stimulates and refreshes us. For example, in the morning get out of bed on the other side. Shower first and brush hair and teeth later. When leaving your residence, go to class or to your office by a different route. For lunch or dinner, try a "far-out" or at least different place. Try something you have not done before. Vary your routine; stay out of the habit rut.
Maintain a steady pace. Energy is wasted when people make quick spurts. When we maintain a steady pace, the wearing effects of stress are diminished. If you are under time pressures, if you are a late arriver, or if you attack tasks impulsively and at a rapid speed, learning pacing skills will be useful. Plan your pace and develop consistency in your daily activities.
Examine personal, social, career and educational priorities. Periodically, we need to examine our goal priorities. To set and reset goals stimulates us to make more constructive efforts. A helpful procedure involves listing responsibilities, tasks and opportunities in terms of the most important to the least important. From this list, attention should be given to doing what is necessary and valued. Do not postpone or eliminate the high order needs, wants, and desires.
Become knowledgeable about your talents and skills. Each person as a unique being has limitations as to what can be accomplished as well as abilities and characteristics to be developed and used for healthy and productive living. Use available resources to become aware of your unique talents and potentials.
Use resources to develop needed skills. We develop, grow, and become proficient by hard work and practice. We are assisted in our work and practice by the use of available resources specifically related to our needs but unlearned skills. For example, if you are a student and have trouble in studying, consult with your college for assistance. Most colleges offer tutoring & study skills workshops. Also, look for study skills handouts at the TWU Counseling Center.
Use time for "other directed" involvement and assistance. Constant introspection and preoccupation with your own thoughts and feelings can be counterproductive. Get in touch with other people and their life processes. Respond to others' needs.
Allow for break times. When you are involved in work, study, or any other type of activity, structure some break times in your plan. A break from an activity can provide some refreshing results. Nourishing stop periods can be for a few minutes or for a few hours. Some break times include body stretching, a brief glance at your surroundings, a snack, or changing to another activity. Rather than doing what we call "resting," usually we are more relaxed, refreshed and prepared to return to a particular task after we have engaged in vigorous and unrelated activity.
Make a fearless inventory. List the busy work you do which is not really essential to or a real part of your schedule and throw the list overboard.
Address your strengths. Attend to the positive inner resources in your life. Express thanksgiving for your strengths and give them notice. Too many times people hide their positive resources more from themselves than they do from others.
Develop a sound philosophy. Epictetus, a first century A.D. philosopher, said, "People are disturbed not by things but the view which they take from them." Adherence to a particular system of principles for conducting one's life provides a stabilizing, functional structure. Psychologists of the rational-emotional approach to therapy emphasize that we are what we believe ourselves to be. Some helpful rational beliefs have been presented in the strategies listed thus far. Hans Salye (1974) presents some similar suggestions which include: "don't waste your time trying to befriend a mad dog; don't strive for perfection (it doesn't exist); genuine simplicity in life earns much goodwill and love; keep your mind on the pleasant aspects of life and on actions which can improve your situation; forget ugly events; when frustrated, take stock of your past successes and rebuild your confidence; when faced with a very painful task, yet very important, don't procrastinate — cut right into the abscess to eliminate the pain instead of prolonging it by gently rubbing the surface; love your neighbor and work hard to earn your neighbor's love."
Seek professional help. With all the strategies presented and the many more not listed here, there are occasions when professional help is needed. Many opportunities for this assistance are available at TWU. The final decision to use these resources is your decision, your choice.
Two Primary Aspects of Perfectionism
- You have a tendency to have unrealistically high expectations of yourself, others and life in general.
- You tend to be overly concerned with small flaws and mistakes in yourself or your actions and to ignore your positive aspects.
Seven Guidelines to Shifting from Perfectionism to Acceptance and Peace
- Let go of the idea that your worth depends on your outer accomplishments and expressions. It doesn’t. You were born, and have remained since that day, worthy and deserving of your personal place on this planet. You don’t need to earn it. The world wouldn’t be the same without your unique gifts: your smile, thoughts, feelings, ideas, affections, quirks, talents, desires and hopes. Your only obligation is to be as you as you can be. And to cover your mouth when you sneeze.
- Recognize and overcome perfectionistic self-talk. Shift from globalizing mistakes to putting them in perspective, and from measuring by some imaginary (and usually impossible) outer standard to using a kinder, gentler inner yardstick – one that honors and cheerfully accommodates your humanness.
- Stop magnifying the importance of small errors. In the grand scheme of things, small errors don’t matter. In fact, small errors are a key way we engage our minds and resourcefulness to overcome obstacles, an emotionally maturing experience. It’s also how we learn anything at all, in the absence of a Dummies guide. The world is full of imperfection and yet it continues functioning, and we all survive and find ways to have fun. Think of small errors as acts of heroic resistance to that bland, minimalist, terrifying hive-mind society they show in the scary futuristic movies.
- Focus on positives. Once you get the hang of it, they’re just as easy to spot as the negatives and feel much better to dwell on. At the end of each day, make a list of five or more things you appreciate about yourself from the day. What ways, small or large, were you helpful or pleasant to others? What small steps did you take toward your goals? What insights did you have? Shifting your attitude to really give these little pluses their due can help turn the tide in your favor.
- Work toward goals that are realistic by taking small, doable steps. A serious pitfall of perfectionism is to set goals so high that no one could possibly blame you if you failed (no one except you that is). This is a defense against giving any goal an honest try. Also, it’s a way of showing that you’re in denial about how prevalent imperfection is in the world. Choose a heartfelt, doable goal and break it down into the smallest steps you can think of. Then take steps patiently, one at a time, and celebrate your progress. If you need, check out the reasonableness of your goal with a therapist or non-perfectionist friend.
- Cultivate more pleasure and recreation in your life. Perfectionism has a tendency to make people rigid and self-denying. This mindset may be expected to increase productivity but it does quite the opposite. It also may be a way of punishing yourself for not being good enough, which is deeply unjust. The antidote is play. Play is an incredibly powerful experience that contributes to inner peace, emotional balance, and increased energy, intuition, creativity and yes, productivity. Play is the act of engaging in an activity with no agenda for the outcome and with deep curiosity about the possibilities. Try it out as often as possible. And do at least one thing each day that you enjoy, for no other purpose than to enjoy it.
- Develop a process orientation. Rather than focusing all your energy on the end goal, which in some cases lasts only moments before you’re on to the next thing, reserve some attention for the positive aspects of the journey itself. Yes, the project will feel good when it’s over, but in the meantime, isn’t it kind of fun to discuss progress over lunch, or to see it coming together, or to get to know people in the process? The sages speak of the journey being the destination. See if you can tune in to what they’re talking about. They are sages, after all.
Information provided by Karen Romine.
Page last updated 8:29 AM, January 8, 2020