4 Practical Ways to Reduce Stress and Keep Your Head Above Water

4 Practical Ways to Reduce Stress and Keep Your Head Above Water

What is Stress?

Stress is the mental and physical symptoms that occur when the body is adjusting to change. Surprisingly, not all stress is bad for you. Some stress is actually enjoyable, such as the stress experienced during a sporting event, or an exciting movie. The fact is we all need some level of stress in our lives to get us going, to motivate our behaviour.

Accumulated Stress (the problem)

Problems arise when this level of arousal lasts for some time and accumulates. When our lives are busy, we seldom allow ourselves time to decrease stress. If tension occurs frequently, and not released, the effects build up over time. Our heart rate and blood pressure become elevated, our muscles become habitually tense, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, we sweat more and become more alert and vigilant. Our bodies begin to exist in this constant state of arousal. We become so used to being tense all the time, being in this state of tension starts to feel normal. We may not even realise what has happened. If this continues, such stress levels can reach a critical threshold. 

When you are at this threshold, it means your body and mind are in ‘protection mode’. You exist in a state of preparedness, which readies you for threat. In this mode, you are more likely to view regular events as threatening. You may be more likely to jump or snap at people for no reason, see the threat in what they are doing or saying, be startled easily or be easily provoked into a fighting (protective) response.

To reduce stress, you have to lower this threshold. You have to reduce the amount of accumulated stress that has built up in our system. If this accumulated stress is reduced, your body will no longer be in ‘protection mode’, and the chances of stress, anxiety and even anger reduce considerably.

What can you do to reduce stress?

As mentioned above, to reduce stress you need to reduce the critical threshold of arousal. We do this by reducing the amount of accumulated stress that has built up in our systems. By lowering this level, our bodies will no longer be in ‘protection mode’ and stress will reduce. 

There are several science-backed strategies that have been shown to reduce stress. Relaxation strategies work by reversing the effects of the stress response. This is because relaxation and stress produce opposite physical reactions. 

Below are just a few that you may want to consider practising regularly. 

  1. Recognise Your Tension

It can be helpful to monitor the level of tension in your body over several days to expand your awareness of where you feel tension. Documenting your level of tension and where and when it occurs in the body can help identify patterns. You may discover factors that contribute to physical issues like headaches and back pain. Often, people also begin to  identify situations at work and in life that cause tension or emotional stress. Once aware, you can begin to take positive steps to reduce the things that are impacting stress and physical tension. 

  1. Practice Muscle Relaxation 

Progressive relaxation involves relaxing each muscle in a step by step fashion. The two main principles in this type of relaxation are to tense the muscles on purpose (to recognise the feeling of tension), and then to relax the muscles and feel the tension flow out of your body. 

Progressive muscle relaxation takes approximately 15-20 minutes. For each muscle group in your body, tense for 7-10 seconds (when you tense your muscles breathe in deeply and hold your breath). Then relax the muscle group for 10-20 seconds (while relieving the tension, breathe out and say to yourself “relax”). Repeat the tense-relax sequence on each muscle group at least twice (if still tense you can repeat up to 5 times). Each time you relax a muscle group, notice the difference between the feeling of tension and the sense of relaxation. 

  1. Practice Mindfulness (Focused Attention)

There are many misconceptions about the term “mindfulness”. From a scientific perspective, mindfulness is simply bringing attention and awareness to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment in the present moment

There are many types of mindfulness practices you can try, including: 

  • Body scan exercises
  • Mindful breathing techniques
  • Grounding exercises for stress and anxiety 
  • Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training
  • Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
  • Meditation apps
  • Yoga
  • Mindful walking

The most important thing is to participate in an activity that you enjoy and that is evidence-based. 

The evidence is clear that, when used appropriately and purposefully, mindfulness training helps people of all ages to learn more effectively, think more clearly, increase performance and to feel calmer. Mindfulness training provides people with an option to manage stress and leads to better self care.

  1. Controlling Job Demands

Recent legislation mandates that workplaces must minimise psychosocial safety risks at work, or face large penalties. Employers, managers and employees can all play a role in improving mental fitness and reducing psychosocial safety risks. One way is by minimising or eliminating policies and practices that can lead to chronic stress at work.  

High job demands are a common psychosocial safety hazard identified in the Model WHS Regulations. High job demands require significant physical, mental, or emotional effort and become hazardous when they are extreme, prolonged, or frequent. Physical demands can include long hours, physically strenuous tasks, or excessive workload in limited time. Mental demands might involve undertaking tasks without adequate skills or lacking error-prevention systems, which can lead to serious mistakes. Emotional demands could involve dealing with aggression or harassment, supporting distressed individuals, or having to display inauthentic emotions. These conditions exceed normal busyness and can lead to chronic stress and pose risks to employee wellbeing.

To address high job demands, workplaces should first identify and assess psychosocial hazards through consultations with workers, observing behaviours, and reviewing relevant records. Strategies to manage these risks can include changes in practices and policies like reducing unnecessary meetings, ensuring adequate breaks and shift intervals, optimising processes, and providing quiet spaces for focused tasks. Workplaces should also ensure a sufficient and skilled workforce, allow extra time for complex tasks, and train workers adequately.  

References

Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(12), 1849-1858.

Chapman S.B., Aslan S., Spence J.S., Keebler M.W., DeFina L.F., Didehbani N., Perez A.M., Lu H. & D’Esposito M. (2016). Distinct Brain and Behavioral Benefits from Cognitive vs. Physical Training: A Randomized Trial in Aging Adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10(338). doi: 10.3389/ fnhum.2016.00338 

Henriksen, K., Haberl, P., Baltzell, A., Hansen, J., Birrer, D., & Larsen, C. H. (2019). Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches. In K. Henriksen, J. Hansen, C.H. Larsen (Eds.),Mindfulness and Acceptance in Sport: How To Help Athletes Perform and Thrive Under Pressure.

Kashdan, T., & Ciarrochi, J. (2013). Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-Being. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. 

Kabat-Zinn, J., & Hanh, T. N. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Delta.

Praissman, S. (2008). Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a literature review and clinician’s guide. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 20(4), 212-216.

Sato, I., Jose, P. E., & Conner, T. S. (2018). Savoring mediates the effect of nature on positive affect. International Journal of Wellbeing, 8(1).

Safe Work Australia. (n.d.). Job demands. Job demands | Safe Work Australia. https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/safety-topic/managing-health-and-safety/mental-health/psychosocial-hazards/job-demands 

Teut, M., Roesner, E. J., Ortiz, M., Reese, F., Binting, S., Roll, S., Fischer, H. F., Michalsen, A., Willich, S. N., & Brinkhaus, B. (2013). Mindful walking in psychologically distressed individuals: A randomized controlled trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, 7.

Toussaint, L., Nguyen, Q. A., Roettger, C., Dixon, K., Offenbächer, M., Kohls, N., Hirsch, J., & Sirois, F. (2021). Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2021, 5924040. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/5924040

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