Stress Reduction Step-by-Step

Progressive relaxation, thought stopping and worry control are often easy to understand but not so easy to do in the right way. These, and a dozen other stress reduction and relaxation techniques are taught step-by-step by Dr. Martha Davis in The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook), now in its 6th edition. The other techniques included in this very helpful book are breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, visualization, refuting irrational ideas, coping skills, exercise, nutrition, time management, and assertiveness; there are also bonus chapters on job stress management and quick relaxers.

A book worth having and definitely worth reading and practicing. It gets this week’s Stresshacker Recommended badge.

[amtap book:isbn=1572245492]

Is Stress Entertainment?

Avatar at The rep is that stress is to be avoided. The reality is otherwise. Stress is avidly watched, read, and heard because, contrary to what we think we believe about it, stress is entertaining. Why?

The truth is, stress sells—in movies, books, quiz shows, talent shows, and crime scene dramas. Not always and not for everyone, to be sure, but in vast numbers of book plots, screenplays, TV storylines, in radio plays, and theater plays, stress reigns supreme.

The surface reason is that stressful situations, when they are happening to someone else as in most forms of entertainment, hold our attention. Peaceful, restful, and relaxing situations, when we watch them happening to someone else, generally do not. There is not much fun in reading about someone having a really quiet day when nothing much is happening, but isn’t it great to watch a-thrill-every-second action on the big screen? Indeed, there is a deeper, genetically programmed reason why stress can be fun.

What’s the Fun in Stress?

To understand what’s happening, we must step back and consider the mechanics of stress. When we perceive a threat (a risk, a danger, a challenge), our mind is instantly alerted by the stress reaction that we experience in the body. Most often, this consists of increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and a release of excitatory hormones into the blood stream (cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline), plus a host of other biological changes that very quickly get us ready for action. Now, what is interesting here is that, in addition to mobilizing the body, the excitatory hormones also generate a certain amount of pleasurable sensations. Is this nature’s little joke, or what?

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The 5-point, 45-second Stress Management Training Program

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Reduced to its most essential and most consequential points, here’s the absolute beginners stress management training course:

1. When we perceive a physical or emotional stressor, our body reacts immediately by producing the natural stress response, which is a vital survival mechanism. After the threat passes, the body returns to its normal state.
2. In contrast, the chronic stress response continues beyond the immediate threat, therefore exposing us to emotional and physical health risks.
3. Most frequently, it is psychological (rather than physical) stressors that activate the stress response long enough to produce health consequences.
4. The power of emotion-based psychological states to disrupt normal stress arousal and then return to normal means that our thoughts and emotions have the power to make us sick. Effective cognitive, emotional and behavioral management of stress is therefore critical to our health.
5. Intentional management of stressful thoughts and emotions decreases the risk of prolonged activation of the stress response and increases the effectiveness of behavioral responses to stressors.

My even shorter summary: practice safe stress.

Faith And Stress: The Connection

My view is that "bad" stress is handled through scripture, prayer, and faith. That is not naïve but a way to perceive the circumstances of life which would invade our peace and joy. –Doyle Kee

Hurricane at The belief in the existence of a supernatural being who has
a plan for each human being, and the opportunity to connect with others who share the same belief, can be powerful relievers of the stress of life. The psychological appeal of faith is beyond dispute: there are over 100,000 registered religions in the United States alone, and membership is constantly on the rise. An even greater number of people accept a form of personal spirituality which includes the belief in a higher being, without subscribing to any one specific movement.

Religious belief and affiliation appear to rise significantly in times of severe stress. Some of history’s most prominent, and some of the most unusual and charismatic, religious movements have arisen in times of great political, economic and societal turmoil. In times of war, widespread famine, poverty and natural disasters, and impending death and illness nearly all religious groups have seen and continue to see their appeal grow.

Sigmund Freud, in his book on The Future of an Illusion admitted, without accepting it, that faith in God could reduce psychological stress. Carl Marx famously stated, “religion is the opiate of the masses” in the introduction of his book Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And we can certainly consider the meaning attached to faith by the 9/11 suicide bombers who went to their death (and took many with them) as a testament to the power of their religious fervor.

The Connection Between Faith and Stress

Research has shown that faith in a supernatural being, with all its corollaries and attributes, appears to be particularly effective in relieving certain specific psychological stressors. Here are the most important ones:

  • Psychological and physical escape from stress: religious organizations offer physical as well as spiritual shelters where food, clothing, and healthcare are available, along with social support, structure, and spiritual guidance.
  • Consolation, devaluation of and disassociation from the illusory trappings of the material world, and the ephemeral appeal of beauty, money, success.
  • Appealing models of resilience and positive outcomes in the face of life-threatening stressors.
  • Cognitive and dialectical techniques that are useful in coping with stressors, such as individual prayers, group rituals and collective petitions. Nearly all religious movements provide ways of giving voice to individual and collective distress, including the fast-growing Internet-based churches.
  • Explaining the inexplicable: in a world that seems ruled by chaos and administered by randomness, faith in a superiorly organized universe is an appealing provider of stability. By prayer, penance, code, dietary laws, rituals, or positive thinking, faith-based movements promote a sense of personal control.
  • A meaning to life and to life’s end. Faith can promote a hopeful and optimistic outlook with its emphasis on a more peaceful (and stress-free) existence and its promise of life after death.
  • A refuge from aloneness and abandonment. The profoundly comforting sense of belonging to a community of mutual love and support, and the incomparable feeling of being loved unconditionally by someone who epitomizes love and trust are perhaps the most appealing attributes of faith.

As an intensely personal experience, faith remains beyond the investigation by scientific means. In psychological terms, faith can positively influence us in cognitive and emotional terms, in the way we come to perceive ourselves, our world, and our future. When embraced sincerely and whole-heartedly, it can become an important protective factor against the effects of stress in our lives.

7 Natural Ways to Heal Stress

Stresshacker Recommends In my recent post I discussed how, “With so many (stress management programs) to choose from, it has become just about impossible to review them in depth and determine which stress management programs actually help people, in what ways, and how well.” Part of the answer may come from this week’s Stresshacker Recommended book selection. French physician, neuroscientist and author David Servan-Schreiber who is a clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine of Lyon University, and the co-founder and then director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has written The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, published by Rodale Press.

41gRvdz0izL._SL160_ The seven natural treatment approaches described in this book make use of the mind and the brain’s own healing mechanisms for recovering from depression, anxiety, and stress. Dr. Servan-Schreiber has selected only those stress management methods that have received enough scientific attention to make him comfortable in using them with patients and in recommending them to his colleagues.

The methods presented are: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (see Stresshacker’s post on EMDR), heart rate coherence training, synchronization of chronobiological rhythms with artificial dawn (which should replace the alarm clock), acupuncture, nutrition, exercise, emotional communication, and cultivating your connection to something larger than yourself.

Servan-Schreiber, D. (2004). The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy. ISBN-10: 1594861587 ASIN: B000GYI1RO

Top 7 Reasons Stress Management Programs May Not Work

Google Search at There are thousands of stress management books, CDs, audio books, treatments, therapies, and remedies. With so many to choose from, it has become just about impossible to review them in depth and determine which stress management programs actually help people, in what ways, and how well. In this post, I will review the types of stress management programs that are available and identify some of the most frequent reasons that may keep them from working.

What Are the Choices in Stress Management Programs?

Biological: “Stress is a biochemical imbalance in the body and/or the brain.” Normal biochemical balance is restored through medication, exercise, dietary, and lifestyle changes.
Psychoanalysis: “Stress is real or perceived loss which causes anger that is direct toward the self.” Insight into inner conflict and release of emotion are triggered via intensive and sometimes extended psychoanalytical therapy.
Behavioral – Focus is on emotion: “Stress is anxiety-modified behavior.” Anxiety is reduced by desensitization to thoughts, events, relationships that cause anxiety.
Behavioral – Focus is on behavior: “Stress comes from problems with the reward-punishment processes.” Behavior is modified through skills training in managing reward and punishment.
Behavioral – Focus is on self-control: “Stress comes from problems with the reward-punishment processes.” Increased self-control over reward and punishment is achieved through skills training in self-monitoring, -evaluation and –reinforcement.
Cognitive-Behavioral: “Stress is caused by distorted information, negative thoughts, and negative beliefs.” Better information, positive thoughts and beliefs, and behavioral change are promoted through skills training in reasoning, decision-making, self-monitoring, restructuring.

Many of these programs can work very well at reducing stress except… when they don’t work. Let’s look at some of the reasons that are most frequently cited when users complain that the stress management program of their choice did not work.

Top 7 Reasons Stress Management Programs May Not Work

  1. One Size Does Not Fit All: As opposed to individually tailored treatment programs, many stress management courses and programs are created for “people in general” without customization for culture, gender, age, health status and other significant factors.
  2. The Shotgun Approach: Most programs target generic stressors, i.e. the most common and universal sources of stress. The theory is that stress can be reduced systemically, targeting the symptoms without addressing their specific causes.
  3. When Stress Makes Sense: Effectiveness is limited in people whose stress results from realistic and valid concerns about stressors that must be resolved, reduced or eliminated for the stress symptoms to go away.
  4. “My Situation Is Different”: A program may fail to produce results when users cannot relate its prescriptions to their specific area of concern, either because the program is too short on specifics or too broad in scope.
  5. The Program Fails to Stimulate Lasting Change: To be effective, any stress management program must motivate the individual to view situations and challenges in a new way, and to apply new approaches and solutions. Often there is a return to the old ways of appraising and behaving after a superficial and temporary change.
  6. Scratching the Surface: Deep-seated stressful patterns are often caused by troubles that are caused by conflicts or personal challenges that are below the surface. Relaxing away the symptoms may leave the underlying difficulties untouched. Stress may go away, then return after a relatively short time.
  7. A Sound Mind in a Sound Body? Many exercise, sleep, breathing, aromatherapy and other biologically-based management programs urge the cultivation of certain aspects of physical fitness, on the assumption that if one feels well physically, the stresses of living and working will be less troublesome. Unless these programs also address the thoughts and emotions behind the stress-provoking patterns, however, it is possible to become more physically fit while remaining vulnerable to stress.

The bottom line of stress management programs? The programs that offer a better chance to work are the ones that do so by stimulating new ways of evaluating situations and relationships that cause distress and of coping with them in ways that are more effective and long-lasting. Any program that motivates these cognitive and emotional changes can be helpful in principle, because it will be more likely to cause lasting behavioral changes.

The Changing Face of Stress: Who Me? Worry?

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There is a new way of managing stress and it’s called “don’t worry, be happy!” Yes, I know the Bobby McFerrin song that hit #1 on the charts before the French Revolution, that is, way back in 1988. This is 2010, however, and it’s way more than just a popular song.

It is the new creed of the Why Worry Generation, as it has been aptly named, which is also known as Generation Y or simply Generation Me. It is composed of the young people who grew up in the boom-and-bust years, that have known Columbine, September 11, and the biggest recession since the Great Depression. They have seen their parents lose their jobs, their bank go bust, their family savings evaporate; many have had their homes foreclosed. They have also experienced the skyrocketing cost of school, saw gas seesaw up to almost $5 per gallon and back. They have seen Katrina, the big spill in the Gulf. They have lived through Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan. Many have died or been wounded there or know someone who did.

And yet, they are optimistic. They are positive about the future. Despite the fact that there are no jobs available. That the graduating classes of ‘08, ‘09, and ‘10 have had an increasingly hard and frustrating time in finding any decent job, let alone a good paying one or one with career advancement opportunities. That their parents and anyone older than 40 is walking around with good reasons to be gloomy and depressed.

These young adults seem to exude positive self-regard, ooze self-esteem, and a resilience that older generations may dismiss as foolish and reckless. Their self-confidence seems unfazed by having to live at home instead of getting their own place, or even having to move back into their parents’ home after a brief stint on their own.

There is another explanation for this resilience in the face of a steady barrage of bad news. It may be the result of adjusting to high stress levels and, over time, building up tolerance for change and uncertainty. This is what is predicted for individuals who are able to accept and rationalize adversity and turn it into a learning experience, instead of being destroyed by it. It is the ability to use the stress reaction to produce an adequate response to challenging circumstances.

So unlike the Greatest Generation, the Millennials, and of course the Baby Boomers, this generation is making good use of stress, making the changes that are called for, and refusing to worry or to feel sorry for themselves. Way to go, guys!

12 Ways to Make Use of Stress

DSCN0319 Stress has a bad reputation it does not deserve. As I discussed in the posts, I React Therefore I Am and The Misunderstood Messenger, its function is primary to our well being and it has been a competitive advantage of the human race since the beginning.

Here are 12 ways to turn stress into an ally, rather than fear it as a disease.

  • Become better informed about the natural cycle of the stress reaction: from the alarm phase to the peak of arousal, and finally the resolution phase.
  • Consider the convincing evidence supporting the notion that we often experience benefits following stress and trauma. There are many names for these benefits, such as silver lining, flourishing, positive by-products, positive changes, positive meaning, posttraumatic growth, quantum change, self-renewal, stress-related growth, thriving, and transformational coping.
  • Notice that in many cases relationships are enhanced
    by stressful events, such as when we value friends and family more and feel more compassion and altruism toward others.
  • Reflect on the fact that stressful situations sharpen our view of ourselves in some way, such as when we learn to rely on our resources, our wisdom, and our strengths, and also a healthier
    acceptance of our inevitable human limitations.
  • Be aware that many successful individuals report that stress and adversity helped them change their approach to life, such as by

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Business of Stress: Self-efficacy Predicts Success

StradaCampoImperatore In the demands-control model of occupational stress a situation is created whereby high demands are placed on the individual with little opportunity to exercise control over the work environment or the task design. This is the most common type of workplace stressor and it has been shown to have an impact on cardiovascular health. But is the problem simply a matter of demands/control stress diathesis? Why isn’t everyone succumbing to heart disease? Indeed, many individuals seem to thrive even in work environments where personal control is minimal and job demands are chronically high. How?

At least a partial explanation can be found in self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the perception that personal resources are adequate to meet life’s demands. Even in situations of low control/high demands, adequate self-efficacy can act as an important protective factor.

When personal resources are perceived as lower than perceived job demands, low self-efficacy results. Task demands are felt to exceed coping abilities, which often creates emotional and physiological overload. Prolonged exposure to occupational stress with low self-efficacy increases vulnerability to burnout, which is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, interpersonal difficulties, apathy toward personal accomplishment, and occupational disengagement through cynicism about the importance or worth of one’s work contribution.

Individuals with adequate self-efficacy believe that their available personal resources are sufficient and may even exceed what is required by their workloads. In day-to-day work activities, this belief in one’s adequate resources accompanies the process of assessing tasks and personal capabilities: in most instances, the perceived balance is in favor of having more than what it takes and the task is undertaken with vigor and confidence. Read more

Spirituality, Longevity and Stress Reduction

Michelangelo_Sistina_CreazioneDiAdamo A recent article published on Medscape Internal Medicine [i] reiterates research evidence showing that church attendance can affect well-being through social integration and support and that spiritual experiences that provide a sense of purpose and meaning may promote hope and positively influence depression and marriage satisfaction, reduce alcohol use and prevent drug abuse. Church affiliation may also be a safe haven to avoid stigmatization by society for certain conditions.

Although the evidence provided appears for the time as insufficient to effectively demonstrate a definitive link between better health, lower mortality and spirituality, nonetheless a tentative connection has been clearly established. In stress management, the presence or absence of hope for the future, the perception of available support (either human or preternatural), and the sense of belonging that goes with spirituality are accepted protective factors that can significantly reduce the chronicity and ill effects of stress. What does the research of the last ten years show? Read more