A traffic jam, a nightmare boss, a toxic relationship.
All are nasty sources of stress that vary in how long they last and how much they affect your day-to-day life.
None of us can avoid stress completely, and we wouldn’t want to. Stress in small amounts can be helpful. But because stress disrupts the natural functioning of our bodily systems, chronic stress becomes an increasingly heavy burden to bear.
Few of us make time for stress relief in our daily routines, which allows stress to bubble away and build up.
If you’re currently helping a client get a handle on stress, you can use the information in this article, as we explore a range of simple and effective stress-relieving techniques your clients can use to stop stress from getting out of control.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and those you work with tools to better manage stress and find a healthier balance in your life.
This Article Contains:
- Why Is Relieving Stress Important?
- 6 Evidence-Based Stress-Relief Techniques
- 3 Relaxing Breathing Techniques
- Relieving Stress with Yoga and Sports
- Simple Japanese Stress-Relief Method
- 6 Popular Strategies for Stressed Students
- 8 Techniques for a Stress-Free Workplace
- Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
Why Is Relieving Stress Important?
It’s no secret that stress is bad for us.
Stress is a destabilizer and a catalyst for other health problems because it messes with the optimal state of balance in our bodies, also known as homeostasis (Schneiderman, Ironson, & Siegel, 2005).
Stress can be intense for a short period, or it can simmer away over weeks, months, or even years. The most crucial reason to prioritize stress relief is to stop it from building up.
Stress and the body
Our sympathetic (‘fight, flight, or freeze’) nervous system gets fired up to respond to stressors, which triggers a range of physiological changes, such as the release of stress hormones and an increase of blood pressure. When this happens, nonessential activities like digestion are put on standby (Schneiderman et al., 2005).
In the short term, these changes can help us cope with a stressor, but repeated or chronic activation of our body’s stress response can be a serious threat to our mental and physical wellbeing (Schneiderman et al., 2005).
Over time, stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol stop helping us and start being destructive to our bodies. Being in a constant state of stress increases strain on our hearts, suppresses our immune system, and increases inflammation (Juster, McEwen, & Lupien, 2010; Schneiderman et al., 2005).
Some people are also more vulnerable to the ill effects of stress. Age, genetics, life experiences, social support, and coping mechanisms can all contribute to how well we’re able to respond to stress (Schneiderman et al., 2005; Thoits, 2010).
Stress is, of course, a normal part of life, and we can’t always control what happens to us. What is under our control is making time for stress relief to recover, recharge, and rebalance our bodies.
6 Evidence-Based Stress-Relief Techniques
To help reverse the effects of stress, it’s a good idea to focus on the basics.
Taking time out to relax and unwind can be an important part of our everyday routines.
Sleep and sleep hygiene
Sleep and stress are notoriously bad bedfellows. When we’re stressed, we often sleep less, and when we sleep less, we’re stressed. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
When you’ve survived a stressful day, getting enough good-quality sleep (particularly rapid-eye-movement sleep) can be an important recovery strategy (Suchecki, Tiba, & Machado, 2012). Chronic sleep deprivation can disrupt our stress response system and reduce our ability to deal with stressors (Suchecki et al., 2012).
To combat the negative sleep–stress cycle, improving sleep hygiene habits is a good start.
- Get a sleeping and waking schedule in place so your body knows when it’s time to rest.
- Wind down before bed in whatever way works for you. Take a warm bath, read a book, or try one of the relaxation exercises in this article.
- Make your bedroom a haven for sleep. Try to remove anything that’s not conducive to sleep, such as clutter, pesky sources of light, exercise equipment, or work-related items (National Health Service, 2019).
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups (e.g., legs, stomach, back) in a sequence to help you better understand the differences between these sensations. Among many benefits, progressive muscle relaxation has been found to reduce salivary cortisol levels, anxiety, heart rate, and blood pressure (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have consistently shown to be an effective stress-relieving intervention (Baer, Carmody, & Hunsinger, 2012). Mindfulness involves bringing your awareness to the present moment with a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude, which can help you deal with stressors more effectively when they arise (Baer et al., 2012).
Guided imagery practices activate the senses and conjure memories or images of serene locations. This positive mental imagery induces a peaceful state of mind.
Deep breathing can reduce anxiety and help people cope with stressful tasks (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011). Diaphragmatic breathing (or “belly breathing”) involves actively breathing into your diaphragm or abdomen, as opposed to the chest.
Deep-breathing techniques help calm the physiological systems in the body, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, increasing activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011), and reducing cortisol levels (Perciavalle et al., 2017).
Laughing and humor
All joking aside, laughing is a simple route to relieve stress.
One study found that “mirthful” laughter reduced levels of cortisol and epinephrine in the body, which could knock down the negative hormonal effects of a stress response (Berk et al., 1989).
Other researchers have found that students who are more humor oriented in their approach to work stress felt more able to cope and reported greater job satisfaction (Booth-Butterfield, Booth-Butterfield, & Wanzer, 2007).
3 Relaxing Breathing Techniques
Taking a moment out of your day just to breathe is an effective way to stop momentary stress in its tracks.
If you’re working with a client to combat stress, try some of these simple breathing exercises at the beginning or end of a session.
Get comfortable in a seated position or lying down, placing one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe deeply through your nose, actively expanding your stomach upward, pushing upward on your hand while keeping your chest still. Exhale with slightly puckered lips, expelling all the air from your stomach. Take it slow, and repeat up to 10 times (University of Michigan Health, 2020).
Box breathing can help you regulate your breath. Begin by exhaling completely for four seconds. Then, keep your lungs empty (don’t breathe) for another four seconds. Next, inhale for four seconds at a similar speed. Finally, hold your breath in your lungs for another four seconds before breathing out and starting again (Scott, 2020).
You can roar and relax with this yogic breathing exercise. Sit down comfortably on a chair or cross-legged. Place your hands on your knees or on the floor, lean your body forward, and spread your fingers as wide as you can.
Breathe in through your nose. Then, with your mouth wide open, stretch out your tongue toward your chin. Next, breathe out with force from your abdomen, making a sound with your breath (the roar). Breathe normally for a little while before repeating up to seven times (Cronkleton, 2020).
Relieving Stress with Yoga and Sports
When stress comes knocking, many people find solace in yoga and exercise.
Yoga and stress relief
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress or symptoms of stress in a range of studies (Chong, Tsunaka, & Chan, 2011).
Originating in India, yoga is an age-old practice that can increase flexibility, strength, and wellbeing. Breathing techniques are typically a core element of yogic practice.
How exactly yoga contributes to stress relief is not entirely clear, but it’s believed to exert positive effects through both psychological and biological pathways (Riley & Park, 2015).
Yoga may help take the sting out of stress by (Riley & Park, 2015):
- Encouraging mindfulness
- Enhancing self-compassion and positive emotions
- Decreasing the sympathetic stress response
- Lessening the stimulation of the vagus nerve, which can subsequently activate the parasympathetic nervous system
- Reducing inflammation
Exercise and stress relief
Exercise is a type of stress, and over-exercising or doing very intense or long workouts can actually increase stress levels (Hackney, 2006). That being said, regular physical activity in the right amount for you may help you sleep better (Dolezal, Neufeld, Boland, Martin, & Cooper, 2017) and boost your resilience to stress (Childs & de Wit, 2014).
Exercise may also help you respond to stress better in the longer term (American Psychological Association, 2020). This is because exercise acts as a sort of dress rehearsal for the body’s mechanisms that come into play when dealing with stress. When our activity levels are very low, our bodies don’t get as much practice dealing with stress (American Psychological Association, 2020).
Simple Japanese Stress-Relief Method
Originating in Japan, Jin Shin Jyutsu is an ancient practice that aims to open up the flow of energy throughout the body and encourage healing (Nyar, 2018). The fundamental assumption of Jin Shin Jyutsu is that free-flowing energy contributes to better health and wellbeing and that certain life and lifestyle stresses can block or disrupt this flow (Nyar, 2018).
The hands are thought to be one pathway to relieving different tensions or blockages of energy. Each part of the hand is linked to different emotions, functions, and organs. For example, the ring finger is believed to be linked to depression, sadness, and decision making and associated with the lungs and colon, whereas the palm is connected to overall happiness (Weber Smit, 2017).
Here’s how to practice the Jin Shin Jyutsu method (Weber Smit, 2017):
- Grab your finger (or thumb) with the opposite hand, as if you were holding a handle.
- Hold each finger (or thumb) for one or two minutes. You may feel a pulsating sensation.
- For the palm, use the thumb of your opposite hand to put pressure on the middle of the palm for around one minute.
6 Popular Strategies for Stressed Students
Being a student can be a stressful time of life, filled with many competing priorities, deadlines, and expectations.
If you support students to manage their stress, these strategies may be a good place to start.
- Reflect and problem-solve:
It can be helpful to break down what is causing the stress. Is it a particular project, money worries, or are you missing home? Establishing the root of the stress can help you problem-solve how to relieve the strain and seek support (National Health Service, 2020).
- Look after yourself:
The stereotypical student lifestyle is not always conducive to optimal wellbeing. Getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, staying active, and making space for relaxation techniques and things you enjoy can go a long way (National Health Service, 2020).
Stay away from alcohol, drugs, and caffeine. These can make stress worse and contribute to poorer emotional wellbeing (National Health Service, 2020).
- Speak up:
Talking to someone about what you’re going through and accessing the support available can be a crucial stress buffer. We all need to lean on others sometimes, and having a solid support system can help us cope (National Health Service, 2020).
- Break it down:
Big deadlines and projects can sometimes feel like a mountain to climb. It can be helpful to create a plan and break things down into less overwhelming and more realistic goals (National Health Service, 2020).
- Be mindful:
Many students worry about their future or dwell on poor grades or mistakes they’ve made, which adds to their stress. Mindfulness can help students step away from rumination or catastrophizing thoughts. Many students get mindfulness or meditation apps on their smartphones to help make mindfulness more of a habit (Smith, 2021).
8 Techniques for a Stress-Free Workplace
Even if you love your job, the workplace can still be a source of stress. You may be working too many hours, your workload may be unmanageable, or you might not be getting enough support.
Here are a few techniques to help avoid or turn the volume down on workplace stress (Mind, n.d.).
- Take breaks:
Put them in your calendar if you need to. We are not designed to work nonstop. Go outside and take a breath of fresh air whenever possible, and make the most of lunch breaks and coffee breaks.
- Cultivate your non-working life:
We need to save energy and time for our lives outside the workplace. Draw a sharp line on your working day, and prioritize fostering your relationships, hobbies, and interests too.
- Create an after-work routine:
To really cement the boundary between work and non-work, establish a routine to end your day. You could go for a walk, write a list for the next day, or call a loved one.
- Make time for informal interactions:
Building relationships with colleagues can create a greater sense of support at work. Make time for connecting where you can, maybe over lunch or a morning coffee break.
- Set realistic goals:
If your standards or expectations for yourself are too high, you may be sabotaging your ability to get things done. Create contingency time for yourself, and don’t take on more work than you can handle.
- Acknowledge your achievements:
It’s easy to focus on what you have left to do rather than what you’ve done that day. Remember to pat yourself on the back, and reward yourself for your achievements.
- Ask for help:
If you’re struggling, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out and speak to someone to see how you can reduce your workload or resolve issues.
- Focus on one thing:
If you’re juggling multiple tasks, it may be putting the brakes on productivity. Keep things simple where you can, and focus on one task at a time. You may find it helpful to track your time to see how long each task takes.
Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Stress can come from many sources, and as a helping professional, it can be hard to know where to start. To get the ball rolling, we’ve provided some helpful tools and exercises from our Positive Psychology Toolkit that you can use in your sessions with clients.
- Stress Management Emergency Plan
This 10-minute daily exercise can help your client boost their coping skills by being more proactive. Here, the client reflects on their stress triggers and creates an action plan for dealing with different types of stressors.
- Visualization for Stress Reduction
This structured, guided visualization comes with a scripted version to help your client find their inner calm. The activity also includes some scales for the client to reflect on how they felt.
- The 5-4-3-2-1 Stress Reduction Technique
This super quick exercise can help clients bring awareness to their senses when they feel stress levels rising.
- Stress Diary
This daily reflective exercise encourages clients to check in with their stress level throughout the day to look back and examine what happened, how they felt, and any themes they’ve noticed in their stressful experiences. This is a perfect homework exercise that could be revisited in session with the client.
- 17 Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others manage stress without spending hours on research and session prep, this collection contains 17 validated stress management tools for practitioners. Use them to help others identify signs of burnout and create more balance in their lives.
A Take-Home Message
Stress relief is not something we can afford to put on the back burner. If we de-prioritize rest and relaxation while continuing to pile on the stress at home or work, sooner or later, we are likely to face dire consequences.
When working with clients on managing stress, it may be difficult for them to begin prioritizing stress relief. But as we’ve outlined in this article, there are many quick and simple ways to seek relaxation day to day.
All too often, we look to stress-relief techniques when we’re burned out or exhausted, but by then, stress has already gotten out of control. Nipping stress in the bud regularly builds positive stress-buffering habits, which can ultimately help us avoid reaching the point where it takes a toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.
We hope you enjoyed this article; don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises for free.
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