Because stress often manifests itself mentally, emotionally, or in the body, these are three paths I often take in helping people with stress management. There is no one “right” way. The trick is to figure out what works for you and do it consistently (and sometimes be flexible enough to use other approaches too). If you try to only use stress management techniques as a “band-aid,” when stress is reaching a boiling point, you may find these techniques more difficult. If you practice these skills regularly, however, it will be easier to tap into these skills when you need them most.
With stress and anxiety, thoughts can often be racing. This “cognitive clutter” can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when you are trying to sleep or when you are trying to perform a given task. So how do you clear the clutter of words? With one word, or just a few words, that are pretty neutral for you. It can be as simple as saying, “Breathe…Relax….” in your mind as you inhale and exhale. It could be the phrase, “blue skies,” by itself. The exact words can be arbitrary. I once knew a Lieutenant Colonel who was able to clear away cognitive clutter associated with the battalion he led, by taking a few moments to do simple math (e.g., one plus one is two, two plus two is four, four plus four is eight).
At least as individualized an approach is using images in your mind for a quick recharge. Imagining a time when you felt successful, appreciative, or grateful, can summon those emotions right now in the present moment. This means embracing an emotional image that incorporates all of your senses, and that especially incorporates how you felt in your body. Sometimes the goal is simply to experience a state that is more neutral and relaxed than whatever state we were in a moment ago. Remember that what works for one person, does not work for another. Something that works for me is imagery of getting my haircut. Everybody is different.
Breathing is one of the fastest ways to get the body and mind into better balance, in general, and in the face of stress. Everyone has an optimal breathing rate known as their “Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia” (RSA) where the two branches of the body’s autonomic nervous system are working in harmony. How often do we hear people say things like “Relax- take a deep breath!” In response, many people breathe in, but then they don’t fully breathe out. Heart rate goes up, but then it doesn’t go down. It’s usually not a problem that it goes up; high variability in heart rate is actually a good thing for physical and mental health. What’s problematic is when heart rate stays up. For heart rate to go back down, a long exhale is needed. Optimal rate varies, but most people have an optimal rate of approximately 3 seconds inhale, 6 seconds exhale. This takes practice and may feel “wrong” at first, but with practice, it actually feels better.