Stress is a permanent feature of our lives, but it really seems to ramp up at work. More than two-thirds of American workers report that workplace stress is a problem.
This means we’re all spending way too much time in fight or flight mode. And it’s taking a toll on our bodies through weakened immune systems, high blood pressure, and heart disease. These conditions shorten our lives and lower the quality of what’s left.
There are lots of strategies for managing stress, but when stress blindsides us with no time to prepare, we don’t need a strategy. We need quick, practical steps we can take NOW that work fast and can be done anywhere. When stress launches its next surprise attack, try one of these: breathe deeply, visualize mentally, relax progressively.
Breathing deeply could be the single most effective way to stay calm. Everyone breathes, but a lot of us breathe the wrong way–shallow, fast, and high in the chest. This kind of breathing is restrictive, it increases our anxious feelings, and it fuels our body’s negative stress reactions.
Slow, deep breathing triggers a relaxation response, calming the body, and focusing the mind. It increases the amount of oxygen in our blood, raising our performance potential.
Are you breathing the right way? To find out, try this: put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen just below your rib cage. Now breathe. Which hand moves? If it’s the hand on your chest, your breathing is too shallow.
The trick is to make the hand on your abdomen move. Inhale deeply while you slowly count to five. Try to get your abdomen to expand instead of your chest. If you have trouble making it happen, try it lying on your back. With a little practice and patience, you’ll be able to shift into a deep breathing pattern automatically.
Once you learn the technique of deep breathing, you can do it anytime in the middle of rush hour traffic, right before you handle the next irate customer, even in the middle of your big presentation.
There are two kinds of visualization techniques. The first one involves building a mental image of a place that’s relaxing for you. It may be a remembered place that triggers relaxed, contented feelings, or it may be imaginary. The basic idea is to give your mind something to focus on besides the stress.
Once you have visualized your restful scene, you should spend about 10 minutes attempting to imagine it as fully as possible. Inventory your senses. What do you see? How does it smell? Do you hear anything? What do you feel? What can you taste? Then slowly allow yourself to return to the real world around you. Effective visualization will take some practice.
Professional musicians and Olympic athletes practice a different form of visualization: a mental rehearsal of what’s about to happen. Instead of visualizing a relaxing scene, mentally rehearse the situation that’s causing your stress. Visualize the meeting you’re about to walk into and rehearse what happens. Imagine yourself successfully completing tasks that give you trouble. Visualize feeling calm and in control. This type of mental rehearsal can help you actually attain these feelings when the situation becomes reality.
Breathing deeply and visualizing mentally both involve your mind convincing your body to relax. Progressive muscle relaxation works the other way, with your body reporting to your mind that all is well.
Progressive relaxation works by tensing and relaxing muscles throughout your body, one group at a time. Try this: starting at your feet and working your way up to your head, contract and loosen each muscle group one after the other. Become aware of each muscle, tense it, hold the tension for a count of five, then slowly relax it. As the muscles in your body relax, your mind will become calmer and more focused.
The more you practice, the more sensitive your muscles will become to levels of tension and relaxation. The goal is to reach the point where you can relax your body on demand without having to go through the entire cycle. If you can do that, then stress doesn’t stand a chance.
Be aware of the situations that cause you negative stress. If you can see them coming sooner, it may give you extra time to breathe deeply, visualize mentally, and relax progressively. Not only will these fast and easy techniques help you in the moment of stress, using them regularly may help lessen the long-term effects of stress on your life and health.