How to reduce stress?
How can we lower our stress levels? There are countless ways to get around that. Most of the time,we are given ad hoc techniques whose effects unfortunately are rather short-term. In this article, I intend to present you with the broader and more long-term perspective on the stress reduction strategies.
Due to the above, I don’t describe here ad hoc methods for stress reduction but focus on presenting the most important guidelines you can follow and long-term strategies that you can introduce to completely eliminate stress from your life.
If, at this stage, you are looking for simple techniques to de-stress on the fly, check out the article 10 ways to get rid of stress.
Why do we need stress?
From the evolutionary perspective, we need stress in order to respond appropriately to life-threatening circumstances. When we are in danger, our entire body perks up to produce the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline sharpens our senses, which suddenly gain a laser-like focus, and we are more likely to face a life-or-death situation.
As the body’s all energy is directed to the activation of muscles needed to produce a flight-or-flight response, other less important body functions are temporarily put on hold. This is not a problem if the stress passes after a while.
It gets worse when emotional stress stays around in our bodies for longer. It can weaken our immune system, which doesn’t get enough fuel. The body keeps receiving signals that it must stay alert to face a dangerous or stressful situation (the tasks and deadlines are piling up: we must finish the project asap, then write an important exam, and then give a public speech). When we have to constantly fight for our life, our resistance to viruses or bacteria ceases to be a priority - the normal functions of the immune system are shut off for longer periods of time.
That is why stress has become one of the most common afflictions of the 21st-century society. Nowadays, according to the research carried out by the American Psychological Association (APA), the direct or indirect cause of nearly 90% of diseases is stress.
Due to various pathologies of modern civilization this originally very important and essential coping response of our body has become our greatest malady. We fear or worry about a lot of things that in no way resemble life-or-death situations. The research conducted by the scientific organization APA, which enabled to determine the most significant sources of stress.
Here are the results of this study:
- Money (78% of respondents)
- Family responsibilities (67% of respondents)
- Work (60% of respondents)
- Health concerns (56% of respondents)
- Relationships (56% of respondents)
- Terrorism (43% of respondents)
In most of the areas of life listed above, stress results from the exorbitant expectations that the modern society imposes on us.
Coping with stress
I remember a time in my life when stress was always there by my side. We never parted. What stressed me most was what other people will think of me and what if I don’t pass a test at school. My head would always produce black scenarios. My internal critic would go on a spree, too. And my stomach would be in knots and give me that awful burning feeling inside, whenever nasty thoughts came up.
Back in the days, I knew nothing about psychology, personal development or methods of working with beliefs and emotions. I had no idea how to deal with stress that was eating me alive.
Releasing myself from these destructive states was not a quick pathway. It took me about two years and required quite intensive self-work. Personally, I think that it’s possible to deal with stress in a shorter time, as long as you have the knowledge which I didn’t have back in the days and I tried to fight stress on a trial-and-error basis.
In retrospect, I can distinguish three key levels on which we should deal with stress:
- Environment (relationships, lifestyle, etc.)
- Body (physiology, muscle tension, level of stress hormone)
- Mind, that is:
- Beliefs (what you believe in and what you think is true)
- Mental habits (what goes on in your head on a daily basis)
It’s hard to say which of these levels is the most important one. I think it depends on the individual. Intuitively, I feel that working on the body level was crucial to me. Systematic relaxation exercises allowed me to "reprogram" the default levels of my muscle tension and stress hormone, which made working with beliefs and mental habits much easier.
But let's start with this most underestimated level.
Everything that happens around us has a much greater effect on us than it might seem. The belief asserted in the circles of personal development enthusiasts that the external world is of marginal importance, compared to what is going on in our mind is not entirely true.
Disregarding the environment we live in and the lifestyle we have chosen can totally hold us back from effective inner work.
I experienced it for the first time during my first trip to Asia. When I managed to get away from the city for longer (2 months), I noticed that without working on my thoughts, my inner landscape changed in a surprisingly evident way. The natural surroundings, the omnipresent serenity, the people of different values and walks of life - all that contributed to the deep sense of inner peace, which I hadn’t known before.
Whether we like it or not, the daily schedule we live by, the places we hang out at, and the people we interact with - all that affects how we feel.
Therefore, if you’re trying to lower stress, you should first look at the features of your environment:
- Is it quiet where you live? Is your peace being disturbed by the neighbors or street noise?
- Do your housemates and workmates bring positive or negative energy into your life? Do they accept you the way you are or do they expect from you to be someone you’re not?
- Does the lifestyle you have chosen allow you to meet all your needs? Can you maintain balance and harmony? Do you take time to rest, go for walks, and do hobbies? Or do you rather rush through life forgetting what's really important?
- Do you get out in nature every day or do you live in a concrete jungle, cut off from any greenery?
At first glance, the above questions may not have much to do with stress. The truth is, however, that they do, and there are more various environmental stressors than you might think. For many of us, changing one or two unfavorable environmental factors can make a huge difference.
A major change of such kind may require making difficult decisions (career change, ending a relationship, relocation, a lifestyle change), but it is not something you would want to put off until later.
Therefore, give yourself a few minutes to reflect on the above questions and make a list of the elements of your environment and lifestyle that turn out to be your stressors.
At that point, I would like to emphasize the benefits of connectedness to nature Numerous studies show that people who spend time in nature are simply happier. A break from the city, even a short forest trip, can make wonders when it comes to our stress levels.
When we feel stressed, our muscles get tense. This tension is a natural and useful reaction when we are in a life-threatening situation. However, when we experience stress daily, our muscles never relax. Quiet often,this results in pain and chronic fatigue.
If this kind of stress stays around for months or even years, we start to get used to it.
A certain level of increased muscle tension becomes the default response to everyday life situations (also our body can have its own habits, one of which can be sustaining a high level of muscle tension). We stop noticing that and forget that, most of the time, our body could actually be more relaxed.
There are many ad hoc ways of releasing tension in our body. The most popular include massage, dancing, yoga and taking a hot bath. I practice yoga (which now, when I am in Bali - the international capital of yoga - is a particularly inspiring experience) regularly and I love the way it eases the tensions accumulated in my body. Such on-the-spot practices are good for releasing stress, which builds up on the fly, but most often it’s not enough to cope with stress for the long haul.
In order to, once and for all, break free from the destructive habit of tensing up the body, we have to "reprogram" the whole system, that is do something that will reduce the level of tension in the long term and make a relaxed body our default state.
How to get there?
First when I got hooked on personal development, I was still in high school, two years before graduation. We were often given the creeps in the classroom about what would happen if we didn’t get good grades at our A-level exams. Needless to say, this put an awful lot of pressure on me back then. Looking for ways to relieve stress, I discovered something that was completely new to me at the time.
Relaxation exercises. I decided to give it a try and I began experimenting.
At first, it wasn’t easy at all. I rarely got to feel any kind of relaxation, and I couldn’t stop my mind from talking all the time. However, I wouldn’t give up and practiced relaxation every day for 15 minutes and slowly I started to see the effects.
I noticed that I was able to enter a state of deep relaxation that I had never experienced before.
I had no idea that you could feel so relaxed. It was amazing. My body felt as if it was put to rest - at some stage of relaxation, I even stopped feeling my limbs. I also noticed that during these exercises I was able to rest and restore in a profound way, which gave me an additional boost to continue practicing them. Relaxation was doing for me what coffee or energy drinks were doing for others.
This, of course, helped me to keep stress on a lower level. I practiced relaxation daily for several months until I no longer felt any stress in my body. It probably wasn’t only thanks to these exercises, because at the same time I worked with my mind. But I am quite sure that without using relaxation technique I would never get such visible results.
After some time, I noticed an additional benefit of practicing relaxation: I was able to consciously relax muscles. Whenever I felt tense, I would only close my eyes and evoke the process of relaxing the body, which I repeatedly performed during relaxation exercises. The tension would go away in a few moments. I didn’t even have to do any mental exercise such as visualization or affirmation. I just took conscious action, similar to raising my hand or walking.
I really recommend trying out relaxation. Your body will thank you for it one day. I have already posted on this blog about relaxation exercises, so if you want to learn how to practice relaxation, be sure to check out the following articles:
What I describe in these articles are two different relaxation exercises. The first one is Jacobson's relaxation, which is about concentrating on specific areas of your body and conscious tensing and then relaxing them. This way, it’s easier to enter a state of deep relaxation than it is through concentration alone.
You can choose from a variety of methods of bodywork to cope with stress. One that is particularly worth your attention is TRE (Tension & Trauma Release Exercises), which is a set of exercises to release stress and body tension. By activating specific muscle vibrations, your body ejects accumulated stress hormones and releases tension. We can do such exercises on our own, although at the beginning it’s good to do with a professional’s guidance. TRE classes are regularly held in major Polish cities.
TRE, or Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises, was created by Dr. David Berceli, an international expert in the area of trauma intervention and a bioenergetic psychotherapist. If you are interested in this topic, you might want to check out his book "Shake It Off Naturally: Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Tension with [TRE]", where he describes his method thoroughly.
You might also want to look into the work of Alexander Lowen, a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, founder and prime mover of a fast-growing body psychotherapy called Bioenergetic Analysis.
The main source of stress is the way you perceive your life and the world. Your interpretations are expressed in beliefs, i.e. thoughts and opinions which you decide to believe in. Beliefs concerning the future, which generate dark scenarios and negative thinking, seem to be the most common stressors.
For example, if you are convinced that if you don’t pass the exam, your life will be ruined, no wonder you will feel stressed before the exam.
You see this task as a potential threat to your well-being, which is why your body triggers a coping response.
If you believe that when you approach a beautiful girl at the bus stop, she will laugh at your outfit and your pick-up line - no wonder stress will be wearing you out.
Your beliefs directly affect the level of stress you feel day to day. Here’s a list of beliefs that are most common source of chronic stress:
- Life is hard
- My future doesn’t look bright
- I can’t do anything
- It’s not safe to be in this world
- I can’t make it on my own
- People are cunning and want to use me
- I'm sure I’ll be fired
- I will never find the one
As far as I’m concerned, working with beliefs is one of the best methods of breaking free from destructive emotions. However, it requires a lot of engagement in the process of change. The more effort you put into it, the better effects you will see. Therefore, if any of the above beliefs seems familiar to you, look into two other articles in which I described various techniques for changing beliefs:
b) Mental habits
Sometimes, regardless of what we believe in, our head generates various destructive voices and ideas. Usually it is the result of our parents’ rhetoric or the burdens of difficult situation from the past.
The two most common and most destructive mental habits which contribute to everyday stress are self-criticism and wicked thoughts.
Self-criticism is a critical internal dialogue, a harsh and judgemental voice in our head, while wicked thoughts is producing worst case scenarios in your head and tormenting your mind with them. When we experience these self-destructive habits simultaneously, our stress levels can skyrocket.
I don’t think I need to tell you that our thoughts have a major direct influence on how we feel. Sometimes even one message sent by our internal critic or one dark scenario produced in our head can cause a rise in the levels of cortisol (stress hormone). I remember that as soon as I started to watch how stress impacts my body, it became very obvious to me. Sometimes one nagging negative thought was enough to make my stomach roil.
In order to lower stress by building better mental health, we must first understand that both this inner voice and the thoughts about future are strategies used by certain parts of our personality in order to achieve their specific goals.
This part’s major goal is to motivate us to take action.
This motivational strategy was passed on most of us by our parents who believed that by criticizing us they encouraged us to get even better grades at school. The message, sent out hundreds of times by an authority, has at some point become our mental habit. Inner critic continues the work of our parents: by pointing out our mistakes, this part wants to motivate us to action.
Of course, it doesn’t do a very good job (the effect is reversed). Still, instead of denying this part of our personality, we are far better off trying to understand it and find a different way to achieve its goal (e.g. by learning other ways of self-motivation). Only then will the critic no longer be so destructive. For many people, the very thought of getting along with their internal critic will sound absurd. From my experience as a coach, however, I know that it is not only doable but also often much easier than it might seem.
The benefits of breaking the pattern of doom and gloom have already been confirmed by medical research. In one of the studies, half of the participants, after learning simple ways to deal with the habit of imagining the worst case scenarios, noticed a major relief of the chronic migraines they had suffered from before (Thorn, BE, Pence, LB, et al (2007) .)
Negative thoughts and fear of the future are generated by the part of us, which, in fact, wants to help us. The purpose this part serves is usually to protect us against any unwanted events or worst-case scenarios. The overriding goal of this part of our personality is to create a safe haven for us.
Of course, just like in the case of the internal critic, the effects of such actions are quite poor. When we are under stress, it’s difficult for us to stay alert and face adversity. Therefore, it is also worth considering how we can develop a deep sense of safety, so that the sabotaging actions of this part of our "self" will no longer be needed.
The most important thing, however, is not to see those negative projections of the future as something we must overcome at once.
We know perfectly well that the more we want to get rid of these obsessive thoughts from our head, the more stuck we are with them. Therefore, the next time you feel overwhelmed by the pessimistic visions of the future, stay open, embrace them with your whole self, show them some acceptance. Then, ask yourself what you can do to prevent this from happening and write down three things you come up with. Afterwards, try to put these 3 things into practice. Otherwise, your need for a sense of safety will not be met and catastrophic thoughts might come back in no time.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts to come to terms with these destructive parts of our personality, mental habits won’t go away and will continue to create a cascade of chronic stress symptoms. Some of them are simply rooted in us, as they have been around for long, and there’s hardly any sense in them, or any underlying cause. Perhaps at some point we got used to them and they become part of our lives. In such case, it’s worth reaching for techniques that will help you actively reprogram your negative mindset and stay positive.
Meditation and mindfulness
Practicing meditation and mindfulness is another reliable mental method of coping with stress. It gives such good results that it could basically make for the whole treatment of this problem. Meditation exercises are a very effective way to "detach" from our beliefs and to gain more control over our thoughts, thus we can eliminate destructive thinking habits more effectively.
I have been practicing meditation every day for over 2 years and I can gladly say that the positive effects it has on my sense of inner peace cannot be overstated.
I also recommend that you learn about a stress reduction method called MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), created in the 1970s by American therapist and master of mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is based on Eastern-inspired contemplative practices adapted to the needs of Western society.
As you might have noticed, the goal of this article wasn’t to give you fast and easy solutions but to present you with a set of guidelines that will help you pick the best method of working on stress reduction.
While reading this article, it has probably become clear to you which of these three levels are, at this point, the most important for you to work on. Take your time to try these steps, without expecting spectacular results right away. Having such expectations may be a source of unnecessary frustration, which might hinder the whole process of change.
When working on stress reduction, it’s better to remain humble and patient. Only then will you be able to do it well and remove stress from your life once and for all.
Share your thoughts in the comments section and let us know which level you plan to focus on in the near future.