How to Relax and Avoid Stress
Lessons of Life © Kosjenka Muk
Long-term stress has several main causes:
- – Difficult external circumstances;
- – Being overburdened with obligations and tasks;
- – Usual way of thinking and emotional functioning;
- – Bad habits.
When a person is under stress for a long time, tension becomes an automatic habit which can become difficult to get rid of. However, investing a little effort you can change your habits and ways of thinking which cause stress. Here are the most important tips:
1. Do not procrastinate. Procrastination is a very powerful cause of stress since it creates an inner awareness of unfulfilled obligations and an ever greater time pressure. It often happens that, while we are trying to put off our demanding and long lasting tasks a bit longer, we spend our time in worthless and aimless activities which we might even not really enjoy, especially since the feeling of pressure is still present. Thus we can waste much more time than we would have needed for the task itself. Persuade yourself to perform your obligations immediately, motivating yourself with the feeling of freedom and relief that you will enjoy for the rest of the day (or even week). Perhaps your procrastination is motivated by fear of criticism or rebellion against discipline…? You might need some focused work on dissolving those feelings.
Maybe you are used to putting off little tasks that would take you only a few minutes or even seconds: I’ll answer this email…., put that thing where it belongs….., make that phone call…later. All these little tasks become a part of the obligations list which is echoing in your head. Later you may forget them and thus contribute to the decrease of your efficiency (even to the impairment of the quality of your relationships, if these little “to do” things are linked to your relationships with other people), or forget some parts of the context (e.g. where you saved the enclosure that you should send along with your email…) due to which you will waste your time looking for needed details. Create a habit to do such little things at once, as soon as they come up.
2. Get organized. Mess and disorganization cause you to waste your time looking for displaced objects. While you are doing this, you are under stress due to this waste of time, especially if you also tend to procrastinate. Organize your PC data in easy-to-survey folders (and pay attention to save new data immediately there where they belong). You can buy several different and well marked folders for paper notes. Organize your drawers and boards. A simple, but efficient additional advice: write down tasks which you cannot perform immediately, phone numbers etc. in an appointment book. This relieves you from the pressure of storing everything in your head and of the danger to forget these data.
3. If this is fair and realistic, delegate tasks to other people. Do you tend to take on too many obligations and responsibilities? Learn to say “no” and whenever it is appropriate, share your tasks with other people. Do you take over “little tasks” from your colleagues at work? Do you do all the household chores while your husband and children loaf? Maybe you do not dare to ask them to pitch in – you might be afraid of being criticized or rejected, or asking that the work is shared would make you feel guilty, or you do not believe they can do it as well as you? In the long run this doesn’t only harm you, but them as well, in many ways: they become irresponsible and develop feeling of being incapable to take care of themselves. Also the lack of a quality relationship – with you – can have numerous negative consequences. Likewise, by avoiding communication you teach your children to act in the same manner in similar situations. If feelings of guilt or fear of rejection are strong, you might want to find a coach to help you resolve those feelings.
4. Plan your relaxation. If you are inclined to feel pressure and think about obligations, it is probably difficult for you to really relax even when you finally manage to find a little time for it. Our brains tend to make our usual thinking and feeling habits automatic, even if they cause stress. It is important not to attempt to relax for a longer time span before you have performed your important tasks, because your mind will constantly go back to these tasks. Plan your relaxation time after you have carried out important tasks. It is also good to determine in advance how much time you will dedicate to relaxation (in order to avoid guilty feelings and wondering when should you go back to work) and to set an alarm clock when this time period has elapsed (as to avoid looking at your watch). Plan activities which you enjoy, or simply plan to do “nothing”. You may wish to plan a whole day, e.g. to dedicate one day in the week only for relaxation. However, remember again to perform all important tasks first.
5. Invest effort in the quality of your relationships. There is no greater stress than when your most significant relationships are unpleasant and tense; neither there is a better source of relaxation than love and closeness with your dear ones. Learn about quality communication and expressing love and put it to practice. The feeling that there are people in your life who you can share love with, who can give you a hug, support, advice and understanding is priceless. However, to create such relationships one has to make active effort and to practice communication skills, which most people are not used to.
As relationships at work are often one of the greatest causes of stress, it is good to avoid work related stress by building good relationships with colleagues from the moment you first get to know them. Act responsibly, friendly, show appreciation. This does not mean accepting unfair behavior, but finding the best possible way to express yourself.
Maybe your very preoccupation with work and obligations decreases the quality of your relationships! It is wise to try to do as many activities and tasks as possible together with your whole family. Apart from the opportunity to create a fun atmosphere and the feeling of closeness with your family members when working together, this will also give you an opportunity to teach your children to develop work habits and you will avoid the feeling of anger, resentment, irritability, fits of rage or passive aggression, which can happen when you feel that the work is unevenly distributed.
6. Take care of your body. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep, exercise and avoid unhealthy habits. A healthy body, apart from having many other advantages, will bear more easily both short and long-term stress, and it will also have more energy for your everyday tasks. People very often use stimulants and sedatives, not only medicines, but particularly products such as coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, sugar etc. as a substitute for resting and relaxation. The person who takes them usually feels a short-term relief as it seems to him that he has more energy, however, as soon as the effect of the substances on the brain weakens, we feel even more exhausted and out of balance. In such situations many people reach for yet another dose of such substance creating dependency which intoxicates, exhausts and weakens the body.
Physical exercise might be the last thing a scared, nervous, tense and stressed out person may desire. However, physical activity raises the level of serotonin in the brain and, what is even more important, reduces the production of stress hormones. It also helps relax the muscles and release the accumulated frustration helping the person sleep better as a consequence of healthy tiredness.
Insufficient and irregular sleep are in themselves stressful for the body, while stronger external stress can make falling asleep and getting a good night’s rest even more difficult. In stressful situations, under the influence of stress hormones, the body remains in the state of alert for longer time periods and the unused energy is being accumulated. Our way of thinking about a certain situation can contribute to this process. Even if we are exhausted from stress, the mental, emotional and physiological level of activity can still be high enough to stop us from falling asleep or from sleeping long or good enough. If you cannot fall asleep in the evenings or if you wake up during the night without being able to fall asleep again since you keep thinking about the stressful situation, try to apply some of the relaxation techniques which can help you fall asleep again if you show a little perseverance.
7. Take care about your spiritual life. Remind yourself that you are a spiritual being and that all external situations present a chance to grow; if your external circumstances are difficult, you might have to remind yourself regularly about this. Meditation, visualization, positive thinking and similar activities are not only a source of relaxation, but help you feel strong and supported.
8. Create a relaxing environment. There are many easy, simple ways of shaping your surrounding so that it promotes relaxation instead of being neutral, or even stress inducing:
- As much as possible, make your work environment pleasant. In rare cases you will be able to participate in the decision making regarding the color of the walls, furniture and similar major changes. However, even if you cannot take part in such decisions, many small details can make a big difference:a) One or more living plants;
b) Relaxing pictures or photographs with natural motifs, inspirational pictures of happy people or something which makes you feel good;
c) Little things such as photographs of the people you love, toys or room fountains.
- The same approach applies when furnishing your home. Here you have much more freedom to invest your time and imagination in order to make your home as pleasant a place as possible with many pleasant stimuli. Carefully choose the colors, furniture and decorative objects which you will truly enjoy.
- Music. For many people music has a profound and strong influence on the emotional state: it relaxes, calms, comforts or helps us get in contact with our own feelings. Tender, slow and pleasant music prevents or alleviates stress, while faster and stimulating music raises the energy and creates the feeling of optimism and strength. Use music whenever you can, at home, in the car, if possible also at work. However, pay attention not to surrender yourself to the choice of radio stations; surround yourself with music which has a strong positive impact on you.
- Aromas. For many people aromas can be one more way of creating sensation of bodily and emotional comfort. Choose smells which you find especially pleasant and relaxing and use them in essential oil burners and diffusers.
- Muscular relaxation. There are quite a few different methods whose main purpose is to release the accumulated energy and tension from the muscles and to prevent further accumulation of tension. The most common and the simplest approaches are: relaxation of muscle groups through the conscious intention, relaxation through combination of strong tending and releasing of muscles or imagining warmth and weight in the muscles.
- Deep breathing. When we are under stress, we tend to breathe superficially and irregularly, sometimes it can come to breath retention. This reduces the intake of oxygen in the body which aggravates the stress reaction. Deep breathing, especially abdominal breathing, not just by using the diaphragm, is a well known approach to relaxation. Breath control can be carried out practically at any time and at any place, and it is good to combine it with other relaxation techniques.
- Bath. Warm water is pleasant and relaxing in itself, and the additives such as fragrant oils, foams, music etc. additionally intensify the sensation of comfort. Magnesium sulphate (bitter salt or Epsom salt) has a relaxing effect on muscles, and it softens the skin, which makes it an excellent additive to the bath water. Magnesium is also a very important mineral for our bodies, and it’s actually absorbed better through skin than oral ingesting. The best time for a bath is before going to sleep since warmth and relaxation can cause sleepiness and induce pleasant dreams.
- Massage. There are a great number of various massage techniques, most of them having a similar goal – relaxation and releasing muscular tension. Many people find physical touch soothing, as it can remind of caressing. Sometimes talking to the massage therapist can be an additional source of support.
- Changing perspective. Our way of thinking considerably influences generation of stress and our ability to face it. Many people are so much used to the „negative“ dialogue with themselves that they may not even notice how they exaggerate the situation when under stress, how they imagine the worst possible outcomes and negate their own strength and ability. Just as we move our body by thoughts and intentions, so we can lead ourselves into the state of stress and cause a bodily stress reaction by our thoughts. The change of such a habit into a supporting and encouraging dialogue with oneself is of extreme significance for coping with stress.
- Diverting attention. If you find it difficult to realize a positive internal dialogue or if you have very little control over the external situation, you can try to temporary divert attention from the cause of stress as an introduction to more advanced techniques. Anything you find interesting or pleasant and which occupies your thoughts and body can help you, such as sport, hobbies, meeting friends, reading, movies… Pets are frequently one of the favorite source of entertainment and pleasure: a walk with the dog includes physical activity and meeting other people, while cat fans have always known how soothing the sound of cats’ purring is. However, take care that diverting attention does not become your habit and a way of escaping from coping with stress. This is only a “first aid” approach that gives us some emotional space to regain energy and resources to deal with stress.
- Active coping. Think what you can do to solve a stressful situation and start working on it. Even before achieving external results, you will gain a feeling that you are not helpless, that you are moving towards the solution and you will reinforce positive expectations. Stress is much stronger if we wait passively and surrender to external influences, than if we feel that we have some influence at least.
- Focusing. A type of meditation in which you concentrate on a chosen object for some time and avoid thoughts. It helps gain control over thoughts. It is recommended to choose something that evokes pleasant associations as a focusing object, e.g. a flower, butterfly or similar. The focusing object can be a certain word that you can repeat in your mind, such as “peace”, “confidence”, “happiness”, “love” or similar.
- Work with the “inner child”. One of the main causes of stress is the fact that at the moments of stress we go into so called age regression, i.e. suppressed, unresolved feelings from our childhood start coming to the surface. From that perspective the situation may seem to have no solution, just as it seemed to be when we were children with very little power and experience, and emotions can be especially strong and painful. Imagine your painful emotions as little children craving attention. Imagine that you give love and support to those child parts of you, that you encourage them to change their perspective.
- Affirmations. If you tend to create negative internal dialogues, you may need to consciously repeat positive ideas in order to slowly initiate a different way of thinking. The affirmations such as “Everything will be all right” or “I deserve love”, “I am strong and calm” etc. can pull you out of the thinking habits which foster stress. It is important that affirmations are short, positively expressed and pleasant.
- Visualization. Our subconscious reacts better to images than to words. Ranging from imagining a beautiful, calming surrounding, e.g. a nice landscape or one’s favorite childhood’s refuge, to imagining a positive outcome of a situation, pleasant images are a type of affirmation which the subconscious mind can understand better.
- Sharing emotions. Expressing one’s feelings to other people is a well known and needed type of catharsis, especially for women. While talking to others, you can explore and sort out your feelings and thoughts, especially if they feel confusing. Other people’s compassion, understanding and advice are an important source of support. However, take care not to overload other people with your problems; talk about them only with those people who are ready to listen.
- Expressing feelings. In a similar way as the physical activity, but on a different level, expressing feelings releases accumulated tension. You can cry, laugh, scream, hit a pillow or a boxing sack… Choose the place and time when you can be alone and let your emotions out without provoking curiosity and undesired questions. Do not exaggerate in identifying with unpleasant feelings, however; take as much time for this as you feel to be healthy and necessary. Some people love this and say it helps them greatly, others feel that it pushes them even more into the unpleasant state. Experiment to see what works for you.