It’s not stress that kills us. It’s our reaction to it. ~Hans Selya~
Stress is part of our everyday lives. We feel stress in our commute to work or when faced with a big deadline. There can be stress associated with homework time or dinner. Parents will especially acknowledge the stress surrounding bedtime.
Stress itself is not inherently unhealthy. We are biologically programmed to respond to dangerous situations by fleeing or confronting whatever the stressor is, and that kept us safe from the ultimate stress of being a large animal’s dinner. But when stress is chronic and continues over a long period of time it can become deadly. Instead of worrying about whether or not your high stress level is killing you, here are five novel ways to approach and manage your stress.
A recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that practicing mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes a day, three days in a row, was an effective way to manage stress. Mindfulness meditation is a particular type of meditation where participants focus on being in the present moment. They focus their breath and their attention on what is happening in a non-judgmental way. This type of meditation has been linked to better resilience and coping skill and in another study was shown to be as effective for anxiety and depression as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden developed a randomized study of 215 patients and found that patients trained in mindful meditation experienced the same relief as those patients who participated in CBT. Professor Jan Sundquist was clear about the findings:
“The study’s results indicate that group mindfulness treatment, conducted by certified instructors in primary health care, is as effective a treatment method as individual CBT for treating depression and anxiety.”
Because stress can lead to depression and anxiety, these findings further reinforce the idea that mindfulness meditation can be a powerful tool for managing stress.
So how can you apply this technique? Mindfulness meditation is as simple as sitting comfortably in a quiet room and focusing on your breath. Close your eyes and let thoughts flow like water. Pay attention to where your breath flows in and where it flows out. Your mind will jump all over as you think about everything you should be doing, and that is normal. The mindfulness part of the meditation is noticing when it happens and gently drawing your focus back to your breathing.
Keep meditations short, five to ten minutes to start, but try to sit and meditate every day. As you feel more comfortable, you can add time. You may feel you are too busy for meditation, but consider the Zen Buddhist saying: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you are too busy – then you should sit for an hour.”
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, journaling has many proven benefits when it comes to stress management. The first and easiest benefit to understand is that it helps you to unplug and step away from technology. This simple signal can be incorporated into a nighttime routine to tell your body (and your brain) that it is time to unplug and rest.
A study from Ohio State University found that journaling daily and then throwing the negative thoughts away helped to clear the mind and protect against those same negative thoughts. Researcher Richard Petty found that it was the physical act that made the difference:
“At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts. Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.”
Similarly, college students experiencing stress and hardship reported stress relief after journaling, more so than any other form of writing, including blogs and emails. This may be that journals and diaries are commonly associated with emotional release. Simply “talking” about what’s bothering you may help you to put things in perspective or give you new insight.
Journaling requires nothing more than a writing utensil and paper. If not having a fancy journal is holding you back, write your thoughts down in a spiral notebook until you can get a journal you prefer. Take just a few minutes each night as a bedtime ritual or a few minutes in the morning to start the day (although this may turn into a “to-do” list).
You can follow a formula to start if that helps; here are a few suggestions:
- Three good things, three bad things, and one thing you’d change
- Five things you are grateful for
- If you have an ongoing stressful situation, brainstorm ways to approach it
- Ten adjectives to describe your day
You can also write free-form entries. Whatever works for you!
3. Art and music therapy
Art and music therapy can be a great way to manage stress, and research supports their effectiveness for not only stress but also anxiety and depression, especially in adolescence.
A study out of Queen’s University Belfast found that not only did adolescents get significant benefits with regard to reduced depression and anxiety as a result of music therapy, but they also displayed enhanced communication and cognition. This study is one of the first scientifically validated, large-scale studies. Ciara Reilly, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Music Therapy Trust says:
“Music therapy has often been used with children and young people with particular mental health needs, but this is the first time its effectiveness has been shown by a definitive randomized controlled trial in a clinical setting. The findings are dramatic and underscore the need for music therapy to be made available as a mainstream treatment option.”
A study on art therapy’s ability to manage stress focused on creative catharsis as a way to confront and then release the stressful situation. The hypothesis was that the creative process was a way to confront emotional issues and deal with them by either reframing them in a positive way or just releasing them. A 2008 study found that art therapy does allow people to manage their stressful emotions, providing a creative outlet even for people who wouldn’t consider themselves artists.
Art and music therapy also includes drama and dance, so there is a manner of expression available for everyone.
4. Hugging it out
Carnegie Mellon also found that something as simple as a hug could help manage stress and even fight infection. The study used hugs as a measure of “perceived social support” after study participants were intentionally exposed to a cold virus. Hugs accounted for one-third of perceived social support in this study, and those participants with more of them experienced fewer reported conflicts and less severe cold symptoms.
Sheldon Cohen, a Robert E. Doherty University professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences believes there is a direct correlation:
“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress. The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy.”
5. Animal playtime
Although chewed furniture, vet bills, and daily care requirements may appear to add to stress, there is evidence that pets can help reduce stress even more than trusted friends or family members. Maybe it’s the unconditional love, the happy greetings, or just the physical act of caring for another creature beyond yourself. Whatever it is, a long walk with your dog (or a borrowed dog) or a play session with a frisky cat can go a long way for stress management.
Among other serious ailments, sustained, chronic stress is linked to heart disease, depression, and Type 2 diabetes. What steps can you take today to better manage your stress?
Image by popofatticus via Flickr