De-stressing in stressful times

Published: December, 2009

Glance at the 10 leading causes of death in America, and you won't find the word "stress" anywhere. Yet many well-respected studies link stress to a variety of ailments, including heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Depression and anxiety, which afflict millions of Americans, can be caused or exacerbated by stress. Stress also triggers flare-ups of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Sometimes just thinking about embarking on a program of stress control can be stressful. Rather than freeze in your tracks, start small. Pick just one stumbling block or source of stress in your life, and see if these suggestions work for you.

  1. Often angry or irritated? Consider the weight of cognitive distortions. Are you magnifying a problem or leaping to negative conclusions without checking to see if they have any foundation in fact? Take the time to stop, breathe, reflect, and choose.
  2. Unsure of your ability to do something? Don't try to go it alone. If the problem is work, talk to a co-worker or supportive boss. Write down other ways that you might get the answers or skills you need. Turn to tapes, books, or classes, for example, if you need a little tutoring.
  3. Overextended? Clear the deck of at least one time-consuming household task. Consider what is truly essential and important to you and what might take a backseat right now.
  4. Feeling unbearably tense? Try massage, a hot bath, mini-relaxations, progressive muscle relaxation, or a mindful walk. Practically any exercise — a brisk walk, a quick run, a sprint up and down the stairs — will help, too. Done regularly, exercise wards off tension, as do relaxation response techniques.
  5. Upset by conflicts with others? State your needs or distress directly, avoiding "you always" or "you never" zingers. Say, "I feel ____ when you ____." "I would really appreciate it if you could ____." "I need some help setting priorities. What needs to be done first and what should I tackle later?" If conflicts are a significant source of distress for you, consider taking a class on assertiveness training.


Mini-relaxations can help allay fear and reduce pain while you sit in the dentist's chair or lie on an examining table. They're equally helpful in thwarting stress before an important meeting, while stuck in traffic, or when faced with people or situations that annoy you. Here are a few quick relaxation techniques to try.

When you've got 1 minute. Place your hand just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three. Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation.

When you've got 2 minutes. Count down slowly from 10 to zero. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply saying "10" to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say "nine," and so on. If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again.

When you've got 3 minutes. While sitting down, take a break from whatever you're doing and check your body for tension. Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to fall open slightly. Let your shoulders drop. Let your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen so that there are spaces between your fingers. Uncross your legs or ankles. Feel your thighs sink into your chair, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your shins and calves become heavier and your feet grow roots into the floor. Now breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly. Each time you breathe out, try to relax even more.

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