Are you friends with stress, or do you fear stress and wish you could make it go away? Believe it or not, stress is necessary for life. You need stress for creativity, learning, and your very survival. Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming.
You may think that the worst kind of stress comes from traumatic situations like a car accident or a mugging. But chronic, everyday stress can be just as damaging. Relentless small-scale challenges can wear you down, whether or not you even realize it’s a problem.
Internal stress: Are you making yourself stressed?
Stress doesn't always come from our external environment. Often, stress is self-generated. This can happen when we worry about things that are out of our control, dwell on the negatives, criticize ourselves, imagine the worst, or hold ourselves and others to unrealistic standards, or take on too many responsibilities. Internal stress is one of the most important kinds of stress to recognize and manage.
Learning to effectively manage stress is the first step to regaining your emotional balance. When you have the ability to quickly relieve stress in the moment, you’ll become more resilient, able to navigate life’s challenges. You’ll be able to stay focused and remain in control, no matter what life throws at you.
Learning quick stress relief is essential for you to:
- Think clearly and creatively
- Communicate clearly
- Accurately "read" other people
- Hear what someone is really saying
- Trust others
- Attend to your own needs
Those who are aware of their stress and know how to manage it are less likely to get overwhelmed by challenges and strong emotions. As well as being an essential skill in your everyday life, learning quick stress relief will also enable you to quickly bring your nervous system into balance when practicing the Ride the Wild Horse mindfulness meditation, a key part of this toolkit.
How well do you currently manage stress?
To assess your present ability to manage stress, ask yourself the following questions:
- When I feel agitated, do I know how to quickly calm myself?
- Can I easily let go of my anger?
- Am I able to turn to friends, family members, and coworkers to help me calm down and feel better?
- When I come home at night, do I walk in feeling alert and relaxed?
- Am I seldom distracted or moody?
- Am I able to recognize the things that distress or upset other people?
- When my energy is low, do I know how to boost it?
Acknowledging stress is the first stage in lessening its impact. Many of us spend so much time in a stressed state, we have forgotten what it feels like to be fully relaxed and alert. Being stressed out feels normal.
What does it feel like to be calm and stress-free? You can see that “just right” inner balance in the smile of a happy baby—a face so full of joy it reminds adults of the balanced emotional state that most of us have misplaced. In adulthood, being balanced means maintaining a calm state of energy, alertness, and focus. Calmness is more than just feeling relaxed; being alert is an equally important aspect of finding the balance needed to withstand stress.
If you don’t feel calm, alert, productive, and focused most of the time in your daily life, then you may have a problem managing your stress levels.
Tips for recognizing when you're stressed
Hush the voice that’s telling you, ‘Oh, I’m fine.” Notice how your breathing has changed. Are your muscles tense? Awareness of your physical response to stress will help regulate tension when it occurs.
When you're tired, your eyes feel heavy and you might rest your head on your hand. When you're happy, you laugh easily. And when you are stressed, your body lets you know that too. Try to get in the habit of paying attention to your body's clues.
- Observe your muscles and insides. Are your muscles tight/sore? Is your stomach tight or sore? Are your hands clenched?
- Observe your breath. Is your breath shallow? Place one hand on your belly, the other on your chest. Watch your hands rise and fall with each breath. Notice when you breathe fully or when you "forget" to breathe.
Internally, we all respond to stress the same: your blood pressure rises, your heart pumps faster, and your muscles constrict. When stressed, our bodies work hard and drain our immune system. Externally, however, people tend to respond to stress in three different ways: some become angry and agitated, others space out or withdraw, and others freeze up.
The best way to quickly relieve stress often relates to your specific stress response—how you react externally when stressed.
What is your stress response?
- Overexcited stress response – If you tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that quiet you down.
- Under-excited stress response – If you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out under stress, you will respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating and that energize your nervous system.
- Frozen stress response (both overexcited and under-excited) – If you tend to freeze: speeding up in some ways while slowing down in others, your challenge is to identify stress relief activities that provide both safety and stimulation to help you “reboot” your system.
There are countless techniques for preventing stress. Yoga and meditation, for example, can work wonders for improving your coping skills. But who can take a moment to chant or meditate during a job interview or a disagreement with your spouse? For these situations, you need something more immediate and accessible. That’s when quick stress relief comes to the rescue.
The speediest way to stamp out stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—and through the sensation of movement. By smelling a specific scent or touching a certain type of material, for example, you can instantly relax and focus yourself. The key to practicing quick stress relief is to discover which sensory experiences have that effect on you. Everyone responds to sensory experiences a little differently, so it’s important to experiment and find the one that works best for you.
Not only is this essential for rapidly reducing everyday stress and confronting emotional challenges, it is a vital skill you’ll need when practicing the Ride the Wild Horse mindfulness meditation in this toolkit.
Inspiration is everywhere, from sights you see on your way to work to smells and objects around your home. Explore a variety of sensations so that no matter where you are you’ll always have something you can do to relax yourself. Here a few ideas to get you started.
- Memories. Think back to what you did as a child to calm down. If you had a blanket or stuffed toy, you might benefit from tactile stimulation. Try keeping a piece of soft suede in your pocket or tying a textured scarf around your neck before an appointment.
- Watch others. Observing how others deal with stress can give you valuable insight. Baseball players often pop gum in their mouth before going up to bat. Singers often chat up the crowd before performing. Ask around about what people you know do to stay focused under pressure—it could work for you too.
- Parents. Think back to what your parents did to blow off steam. Did your mother feel more relaxed after a long walk? Did your father play with the dog or do yard work after a hard day? Try some of the things they did to unwind; they might work for you too.
Take a break from technology
Taking a short hiatus from the television, computer, cell phone, and other electronic gadgets will help you discover how your senses respond to different experiences. Here are some “unplugging” tips:
- Try tuning into relaxing music instead of talk radio during your commute. Or try riding in silence for 10 minutes.
- Stuck in a long line at the grocery store? Instead of talking on your cell phone, take a moment to focus on your breathing and take some deep, slow breaths.
- Instead of checking e-mail while waiting for a meeting to begin, look out the window or sip some aromatic tea.
- While waiting for an appointment, resist the urge to text and give yourself a hand massage instead.
Let’s get real. It’s not easy to remember to use our senses in the middle of a mini—or not so mini—crisis. At first, it will feel easier to just give into pressure and tense up. The truth is, quick stress relief takes practice, practice, and more practice. But with time, calling upon your senses will become second nature.
Learning to use your senses to quickly manage stress is a little like learning to drive or play golf. You don’t master the skill in one lesson; you have to practice until it becomes second nature. Once you have a variety of sensory tools you can depend on, you’ll be able to handle even the toughest of situations. Here are tips to help you make quick stress relief a habit:
- Start small. Instead of testing your quick stress relief tools on a source of major stress, start with a predictable low-level source of stress, like cooking dinner at the end of the day or sitting down to balance your checkbook.
- Identify and target. Think of just one low-level stressor that you know will occur several times a week, such as commuting. Vow to target that particular stressor with quick stress relief every time. After a few weeks, target a second stressor. After a few weeks more, target a third stressor and so on.
- Test-drive sensory input. Experiment with as much sensory input as possible. For example, if you are practicing quick stress relief on your commute to work, bring a scented handkerchief with you one day, try music another day, and then try sucking a mint the next day.
- Make “have fun” your motto. If something doesn’t work, don’t force it. Move on until you find your best fit.
- Talk about it. Verbalizing your quick stress relief work will help you integrate it into your life. It’s bound to start a fascinating conversation—everyone relates to the topic of stress.
The best part of quick stress relief is the awareness that you have control over your surroundings. Even if you share a work area, you can put quick stress relief within arm's reach. We all have our stress hotspots. Where are yours?
Quick stress relief at home
- Entertaining. Prevent pre-party jitters by playing lively music. Light candles. The flicker and scent will stimulate your senses. Wear clothes that make you feel relaxed and confident instead of stiff and uncomfortable.
- Kitchen. Cool the kitchen commotion by breathing in the scent of every ingredient you use—even if you’re just opening cans. Delight in the delicate texture of an eggshell. Appreciate the weight of an onion.
- Children and relationships. Prevent losing your cool during a spousal spat by breathing and squeezing the tips of your thumb and forefinger together. When your toddler has a tantrum, rub lotion into your hands and then breathe in the scent.
- Sleep. Too stressed to snooze? Try using a white noise machine for background sound or a humidifier with a diffuser for a light scent in the air.
- Creating a sanctuary. If clutter is upsetting, take 10 minutes each day to tidy and organize. Paint the walls with a fresh coat of your favorite calming color. Display photos and images that make you feel happy. Throw open the curtains and let in natural light whenever possible.
Quick stress relief at work
- Meetings. During stressful sessions, stay connected to your breath. Massage the tips of your fingers. Wiggle your toes. Sip coffee.
- On the phone. Inhale something energizing, like lemon, ginger, peppermint or coffee beans. While talking, stand up or pace back and forth to burn off excess energy. Conduct phone business outside when possible.
- On the computer. Work standing up. Do knee-bends in 10-minute intervals. Wrap a soft scarf around your neck. Suck on a peppermint.
- Lunch breaks. Take a walk around the block or in the parking lot. Listen to soothing music while eating. Have a quick chat with someone you love.
- Your workspace. Place family photos on your desk and display images and mementos that remind you of your life outside the office.
Talking to someone who listens: another rapid stress reducer
Talking about your stress with a calm and balanced listener will make you feel better instantly. It’s not always realistic to have a pal close by to lean on—such as when you’re practicing the Ride the Wild Horse mindfulness meditation—but building and maintaining network of friends is extremely good for your mental health. Between quick stress relief techniques and good listeners, you’ll be well-equipped to manage stress.