Many people live in a fast-paced world.
No matter where they are in the world—I’m thinking of friends in Canada, England, Mexico, Zambia, Thailand, and of course New Zealand—the rapid pace of work, home, family life, and keeping up with it all has countless people frazzled.
Worried. Frustrated. Angry. Maybe even afraid, just a little.
Face it—many people are stressed out.
What to do about this? I have three suggestions to reduce stress in your life today.
Yes, you can reduce that knot of frustration in the pit of your stomach. Or, perhaps that nagging headache in the back of your head, traveling down your neck. I can’t promise total relief, but these three management tools will help you begin to get these challenges of stress right-sized.
First, you can do a quick body scan.
This lasts only a few minutes, but will help you to isolate areas in your body that need some attention. Now, sit comfortably in an upright chair. (A kitchen or dining room chair works well.) Feet flat, directly below your knees. Hands loose, comfortably in your lap. Close your eyes.
Spend several seconds becoming aware of your breath. In, out. In, out. Become aware of your internal body, tight muscles. Start at your toes, feet and ankles. Is there any tension? Move up your legs—your shins, knees, thighs. Anything tight or uncomfortable? If there is, slowly exaggerate the tenseness. And just as slowly, try to relax that tightness. Continue being aware of your internal body, traveling up your torso. Fingers, wrists, and arms. Do you encounter anything tense?
Repeat, tensing and relaxing that tightness. Now, the upper back and shoulders. (One of my huge, personal places of tension!) Repeat, tensing and relaxing any discomfort or tightness. Letting the tension dissipate. Move up to the jaw, face, forehead. (Sometimes I find it helpful to give myself a mini-massage right here.)
Any place your body is keeping (or hiding!) tension is a caution, maybe even a warning to you. A heads-up for less stress in your future day-to-day living!
The second suggestion? Just let go.
Yes, you heard me correctly. Lie down on a rug or a firm mattress.
Get comfortable—very important! Pull your knees up slowly until your feet are flat on the rug (or mattress).
This is significant because it’s often best for your back to be in contact with the floor, especially for those with lower back issues. Wiggle your body around, and align yourself in a straight line, as much as you are able. Close your eyes gently. Feel your breathing. In, out. In, out.
Focus on your body, on the air moving in and out, your lungs filling with air and then pushing it out. What parts of your body are you aware of next?
Feel those parts, become aware of them in a particular way. Is there tension? Stress? Or, the absence of tightness? Check out your right side, and then your left side. Is one side more loose than the other? Are there other differences, say, a tightness in one area on one side, and a complementary tenseness in another area, on the other side of your body?
Can you describe the tenseness? What about the specific location in your body? Wiggle your body around again, gently, especially where you feel tight, tense, stressed. (Perhaps you might even want to document, to write this down, identifying the location and the specific kind of discomfort—but try to wait until you’re done letting go.)
Breathe deeply, in and out. Release those areas of tightness and discomfort, as much as you are able. Allow peace, calm, gentleness, and wholeness to come in where stress, tightness and anxiety were resident. Breathe. Let go. If you would like, you may rest for a few minutes in the peaceful place you are in right now.
Third, you may make a stress-awareness diary.
Certain people, places, or things can cause stress in all of our lives. Some parts of the day or night may be more stressful, too. Any or all of these may cause physical, emotional and/or psychological feelings of stress.
Tightness. Discomfort. General anxiety. Repeated stress-filled events may very well be a root cause of physical or mental discomfort. What to do?
For two weeks, keep a diary of events or people or places that trigger stress in your life.
An added bonus comes from keeping track of those symptoms or emotions that accompany the stressors. It can be as simple and as clarifying as the following entries:
7:30 am Alarm didn’t go off, late to work Headache, worry about boss’s reaction
10:30 am Presentation to my department Nervousness, anxiety, sweaty palms
3:30 pm Phone call/fight with my mother Anger, tension in neck, worry about her
11:00 pm Insomnia, tossing and turning Worry about work, tightness in neck and back
A simple diary like this can tell you a great deal.
It can identify how a stressor results in a specific symptom or outcome. Interpersonal conflicts, inner reactions, outside stressors—keeping track of any and all of these can give you insight into how you/your body deals with different stress-filled situations, people, places and things.
This diary may also be a good resource for a counselor, therapist, or other medical staff person.
Try to recognize the things that help you become less anxious, less tension-filled.
Concentrate on beneficial, life-giving things. If you are helped by calming, spiritual or holy readings, recordings or conversations, I encourage you to reach out for them. Surround yourself—as much as you are able—with people, places and things that nurture, encourage, support you, and give you a positive outlook on life, one day at a time.
I wish you God’s blessings and all the best, to you and your loved ones.
(Special thanks to the wonderful resource The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 6th edition. Authors Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Matthew McKay, New Harbinger Publications, 2008. Portions of this article adapted and enlarged from the basic suggestions made in the workbook.)
Elizabeth Jones, M.Div., CADC, is currently a pastor at a small congregational church in the Chicago suburbs, St. Luke’s Church. She has been a chaplain for most of the last ten years. She also has a certificate in Alcohol and Drug Counseling (with IAODAPCA). Elizabeth has volunteered as a leader and group facilitator for ten years at a drug and alcohol inpatient rehab unit. She also has interests in ministry and prayer-related activities, and is a member in the Federation of Christian Ministries.