Different coping techniques for stress
Since stress is one of the most frequent health problems, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), battling this serious affliction is as important as battling some serious diseases like cancer or diabetes. Chances are that the stress you experience is inextricably linked with your work. Studies undertaken by the WHO teach us that stress relating to work is the most detrimental form of this health problem.
Since the introduction of the concept of stress, experts coming from various fields of research aimed to develop stress management techniques. Some of these techniques and methods are purely psychological, coming from Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) and Mindfulness psychotherapies, while most involve some form of muscle relaxation and other interventions that relate to the body. This is why we divided all methods for battling stress in two main groups- the Mind and the Body techniques. It’s important to note that, in practice, both approaches go together. For instance, a mental image is linked with physiological relaxation, thus producing the maximum effect. It is only for the sake of sound analysis that we have chosen to explain them separately. Let’s first see what the Mind has to offer.
Mind methods to deal with stress
These are the aforementioned “pure” psychological methods, that mostly originate from CBT and Mindfulness therapy. We mention them first on purpose, as the Body techniques are often favored at the expense of the Mind techniques.
After all, exercises relating to the Mind are often much more “user-friendly” and don’t necessitate extensive relaxation courses, which are sometimes the indispensable prerequisite of the Body exercises.
In their comprehensive summary of stress management techniques, Varvogli and Darviri (2011) mention these psychological techniques:
Imagination and Guided Imagery
There is a whole variety of guided imagery approaches. The initial forms (e.g. systematic desensitization, etc.) were developed by Volpe, a behavioral therapist, and scientist. With the advent of the Mindfulness movement, one particular guided imagery exercise became popular, the so-called “Safe Place” imagination.
To appropriately do this, the person simply has to “build” a representation of his or her safe place. There are absolutely no boundaries when it comes to the nature and type of this safe place. After the most representation is found, the person has to try and summon it whenever the stress is experienced.
As we’ve mentioned in the introduction, the two groups of techniques (the Body and the Mind) are seldom, if ever, separated in practice. This is why it’s smart to link the representation of safe place with physiological relaxation. This means that, before eliciting your safe space, you should first attain the state of relaxation with some of the Body techniques we’ll explain a bit later.
The efficiency of Guided Imagery and Imagination exercises in stress management has been empirically validated (Carter, 2006).
Johannes Schultz was a German psychiatrist who studied the phenomenon of hypnosis. He noticed that there are specific feelings that constitute the psychological experience of hypnosis. His method relies heavily on autosuggestion and the repetition of simple, efficient phrases. This is not a coincidence. Almost half of century before Schulz, Sigmund Freud treated his patient with a blend of suggestion, hypnosis, and psychoanalysis. Freud, much like Schulz, noted that it is much easier to persuade his patients while they are in the state of hypnosis.
Shultz mentions 6 different exercises that can be practiced both in therapy and in self-relaxation settings:
- Accentuating heaviness by repeating phrases such as: “My arm is heavy”.
- Emphasizing feelings of warmth- “ My leg is heavy”.
- Controlling cardiac functions by self-suggestion- “My heart beats nice and slow”
- Concentrating on the respiratory system is also achieved passively (e.g. saying “It breathes me.”, instead of “I breathe”).
- Focusing on the abdominal region and its warmth- “My belly is warm”
- Passively concentrating on the coolness in the head- “The back of my head is cool”
As you can see, passive concentration is the common denominator of all 6 Autogenetic exercises. In his analysis of hypnosis, Schulz noted that people’s attention changes. By practicing passive concentration, it becomes easier to mimic the hypnotic state, which increases the efficiency of auto-suggestion.
Another common characteristic is the specificity of each exercise. Empirical studies of autogenetic training proved that phrases focusing on a specific part of the body (e.g. arm, leg, or part of the skull) first effect the desired change in the part of the body that’s referred to. Then the warmth, or coolness can be generalized onto other parts of the body. Had the phrases been too general, the efficiency of autosuggestion would have been impeded.
Needless to say, the exact content of phrases can be changed and adjusted, according to personal preferences. People who feel intense headaches as a result of busy work life, should of course focus on their heads (and, more specifically, on specific regions of their heads).
Autogenetic training isn’t at the slightest as popular as some other techniques from this list, which doesn’t mean that it’s less effective. Interestingly enough, German people favor this method above most others that are popular in the U.S.
Relaxation Response has the same “active ingredients” as Autogenetic Training. Like the latter, it also involves constant repetition of a certain phrase, but the choice isn’t as restricted as in Autogenetic Training. In Relaxation Response (developed by Harvard’s Herbert Benson), prayers, thoughts, mantras, and other short phrases can be utilized.
Transcendental Meditation as a positive stress management technique
You’ve probably heard about this one. Thanks to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation (TM) became popular in Western civilization. TM is practiced two times per day, for about 20 minutes.
Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of TM is the mantra repetition. Mantra is a meaningless phrase, repeated during the 20-minutes Transcendental Meditation sessions. The famous “ohm” sound is, in fact, a mantra. People are often encouraged to come up with their mantras, as this encourages authenticity.
Strictly speaking, Transcendental Meditation is taught by a special TM teacher or instructor. Most TM workshops have to be paid for, as Transcendental Meditation is a registered trademark product. Of course, you can practice it on your own, without paying anybody. If you want to do it, you can do it by yourself.
The goal of this stress-relieving technique is to attain the so-called “transcendental consciousness”. This mental state is different from sleep, dream, or normal alert state. Some studies prove that this special kind of consciousness is beneficial for various systems of organs, especially for the ones involved in stress response and dealing with stressors. Most importantly, by practicing Transcendental Meditation you change your brain circuitry. Just as you improve coherence in your psychological world, so your brain starts functioning more coherently.
TM is not only efficient in battling current hardships and stressors. People who practice it long enough become more resilient in stressful situations. This method for stress management decreases the chances of acquiring various cardiovascular diseases (and attenuates the symptoms thereof when the disease is already present). Studies have shown that TM helps people with hypertension, reduced atherosclerosis (stroke), and other cardiovascular conditions (Castillo et al. 2006; Walton et al. 2002; Walton, Schneider & Nidich 2004).
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
We have already mentioned that the Mindfulness movement influenced the way we approach the topic of stress reduction. Kabat-Zinn first systemized the basic tenets of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. As Shapiro, Schwartz, and Bonner stated: “Mindfulness meditation is a formal discipline that attempts to create greater awareness and consequently greater insight in the practitioner. It goes beyond a closed concentrative one-pointed meditation by introducing an openness to all experiences. Mindfulness is a conscious moment to moment awareness, cultivated by systematically paying attention on purpose.” (1998, p. 585).
According to Kabat-Zinn, the basic principles of the Mindfulness movement are:
- Unconditional acceptance of others and self
Although Kabat-Zinn was inspired by the Eastern tradition and Buddhism, his definition of meditation is much broader and more comprehensive than the traditional one. His intervention is an 8-week stress reduction program, that is usually done in groups.
These are the most important exercises taught in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction seminars:
- Sitting Meditation– this is where the aforementioned principle, impartiality, comes into play. More specifically, participants are advised to observe their body feelings and sensations. Moreover, they are taught how to shift their focus from these somatic sensations to their breath. Participants learn how to “let go” of their emotions and observe how their inner world empties as their attention shifts towards their breath. The principle of self-compassion (or compassion) can also be expressed here. More specifically, participants often notice that their attention turns towards some unresolved conflict they have. These problems usually involve feelings of excessive guilt or shame. Mindfulness movement teaches you that forgiving oneself is one of the first steps towards mental health.
- Body Scan is a technique that will come in handy for people who have somatic manifestations of stress. As we’ve mentioned in another article, symptoms like headache, trembling, gastrointestinal problems, and vulnerable immune system, are some of the most frequent signs of stress. Stress reduction in mindfulness movement is tackled through calm, guided observations of all body sensations, starting from toes.
- Hatha Yoga is meant to strengthen the muscles and give you a new perspective of your body. Too often we are too busy to pay attention to what our bodies tell us. Hatha Yoga is a special, adapted version of the standard Yoga.
In all these exercises, controlled breathing is one of the main “active” ingredients. More specifically, your calm, deep breath serves as an anchor, a place where you come back from deep explorations of your inner world. Unlike “standard” meditation, Mindfulness therapists won’t advise you to empty your mind.
Cognitive behavioural techniques to deal with stress
Almost every technique and method we’ve mentioned so far can be „self-administered “. Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Reduction, on the other hand, can only be learned through consistent work with a psychotherapist. After numerous therapeutic sessions, one can learn to fully embrace the CBT way of thinking.
Essentially, in Cognitive Behavioral therapy, you learn that everything that happens to you (including your own emotions and feelings) is your construct and evaluation. What do we mean by this? Let’s take an example. Let’s say that you’re stuck in traffic. Alongside you, there’s another person, who’s also waiting for the things to clear up a bit. That person seems rather calm and relaxed. On the other hand, you slowly become anxious, vexed, and frustrated. „Why should I wait in line?“, you may ask. Slowly, you get madder and madder, and after a while, you can hardly control yourself.
What’s the difference between you and your companion? In terms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you have a set of dysfunctional beliefs. According to Albert Ellis, one of the most important theoreticians in this field, dysfunctional beliefs are at the core of all mental problems.
These are the 4 main groups of dysfunctional beliefs:
- Unrealistic expectations- people often say “I must”, or “You have to do this or that”. When formulated this way, it seems as if there is no other option besides the one we prefer. Instead of having extreme, unrealistic expectations, it’s better to have preferences, as they are much more realistic. Most importantly, having preferences means that you acknowledged that what you want is not bound to happen. It’s not the question of “my way or the highway”, but rather “it would be nice if I had what I wanted, but I realize that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way”.
- A tendency towards exaggeration and catastrophization- people with this kind of dysfunctional belief exaggerate the bad as well as good things. They might say something like “this is the worst thing that ever happened to me”. Albert Ellis liked to draw a scale from 1 do 100 and say: “This is the scale of how bad things are. As you approach the right end of the scale (100) things become more and more unbearable, and finally, completely unbearable”. Now, people who tend to exaggerate are more likely to label situations with the number 100 (which means that it’s unbearable). Albert Ellis would then say: “Nothing is unbearable. We can always think of something even worse than our worst nightmares. In other words, although some events approach the number 100 (unbearable), there can always be worse”.
- Lack of tolerance to frustration- this is perhaps the most important dysfunctional belief for stress management. Individuals with this belief think that they cannot endure something. For instance, a man who realizes that he has a lot of work to do might say: “This is too much work. I know I will break under pressure and fail”. Ellis teaches you to use more moderate expressions. For instance: “I know that this is hard, but this doesn’t mean that I am unable to do it. I will need to get out of my way, that’s right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I will fail and get completely stressed out”.
- Unconditional acceptance of self and others- this one is also important for stress management. In some other texts, we’ve said that stress is inevitable. Sooner or later we’ll have to encounter it. Sometimes, we are simply overwhelmed by the circumstances. One of the worst mistakes people make is when they judge themselves (and others) and refuse to accept their flaws (and others’). Accepting one’s vulnerability and moments of weakness is the first step towards stress management.
Coping methods for stress through the boby
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Edmund Jacobson developed this method for somatic relaxation in the 1920s. He hypothesized that muscle relaxation can induce psychological serenity.
As in some of the aforementioned methods, the focus should be turned towards specific parts of the body (e.g. legs, arms). Jacobson’s innovation consists of placing tension in muscles for about 10 seconds before passing on to relaxation that lasts for about 20 seconds. This way, the relaxation that ensues is emphasized by the tension.
Let’s see how a typical session of Progressive Muscle Relaxation looks like:
- Lie down with eyes closed
- Focus on your leg
- Contract the muscles in your leg (about 10 seconds)
- Slowly relax the muscles in the same leg
- Pass on to the other parts of the body
After practicing this for a certain amount of time, you’ll be able to relax very quickly and at your will. One session usually lasts about 15 minutes, but, you can tailor this technique to your preferences and find the form that does the trick for you. During the initial period of practice, you’ll have to repeat this session minimum twice daily.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation has been repeatedly validated as an efficient technique, that can be used to relieve suffering in all spheres of human functioning. PMR relieves the anxiety linked with stress, and anticipatory anxiety reduces sympathetic hyperarousal, etc. You can either listen to an audiotape, read a manual, or work with a trained professional. The last option will perhaps be the most efficient one. A trained professional will know how to adapt the basic scheme to your characteristics.
Breathing techniques for stress
It’s safe to say that Diaphragmatic Breathing is a stress-relieving method that relies heavily on Buddhist tradition and meditation. This is a technique for stress management is perfect for those individuals who would like to reap the benefits of Buddhism, without having to delve into the philosophy behind it.
Diaphragmatic Breathing is sometimes referred to as “deep breathing”, “abdomen breathing”, or “belly breathing”- you can use them interchangeably as they all point to the same thing.
Much like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, breathing exercises also aim to achieve holistic relaxation through the relaxation of the Body.
This is the “recipe”:
- Find a comfortable position
- Focus on your breathing- if you’ve been feeling a lot of stress lately, chances are that your breath will be shallow and fast. These are the “trademark” signs of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Another frequent sign is the so-called “chest breathing”.
- Instead of moving your chest, try to move your stomach (abdomen, belly, diaphragm). Think of it this way, when you are running you move your chest a lot. You want to avoid this. What you want to achieve is that deep, calm, and slow diaphragmatic breathing that characterizes deep sleep.
- Practice this for a few minutes, several times a day
Diaphragmatic Breathing (DB) is especially efficient when you need to calm down fast. Unlike some other techniques from this list, DB is an exercise that leads to general relaxation in a short amount of time. For example, it has been empirically shown that DB decreases stress that occurs during dental visits.
As this is one rather simple method for stress management, you can combine it with some others we’ve mentioned here. For instance, you can practice Diaphragmatic Breathing while doing Guided Imagery and Imagination. If you remember, in the Introduction we’ve already stated that both Body and Mind stress-relieving techniques are almost always found together. After all, they are more efficient when combined.
 Needless to say, you have to be consistent. Practicing any relaxation method 3 times per month is simply not enough. Consistency is a necessary prerequisite of all the techniques mentioned in this text.