HOW STRESS REDUCTION CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE
by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.
As we all know, stress is a normal part of our lives. We experience different pressures at work, from other family members and from local and world events. There is no way to escape it! At times, stress can even be beneficial. It can motivate us to work on projects we would rather postpone. It can even make us more alert and productive.
Medical evidence, however, continues to grow about the harmful effects of stress on our bodies. We have known for years that stress decreases our pleasure in life and is related to sleep disturbances, headaches, and a variety of serious medical conditions.
Although we cannot eliminate stress, we can reduce the number of stressors in our lives. We can also increase our positive thoughts and activities, which reduce the impact of stress on our bodies. Most importantly, we can improve the way we respond to stressors in our lives.
Different Types of Stress and Their Impact on our Health
We typically think that the big issues create the most harmful stress for us-divorce, loss and job changes. In actuality, it is the small day-to-day stressors that create the biggest problems for us in the long run. Examples of this are rushing to work in the morning, worrying over small decisions, replaying hurts that have occurred to us during the last days, weeks, or even years. The main reasons the smaller stresses have such an impact are their frequency and the fact they reflect our general personality style that pervades our lives. For many of us, worry is such a constant part of our lives that we don’t even realize we are worrying, but our bodies do.
The Harmful Effects of “Shoulds”
As we are growing up, parents, teachers, or friends have told us all the things we “should” or “should not do.” Unfortunately, as we get older we take those “shoulds” for granted, let them greatly increase our stress and never reevaluate whether they are best for us. “I should always say ‘yes’ when someone asks for help, ” “I shouldn’t get angry,” “I shouldn’t give to myself because this is being selfish” are just a few “shoulds” that would be best to reexamine. Over many years of private practice, I have found the people who use “shoulds” the most are usually the ones that need them the least. If someone continues to upset us, even though we have asked them to stop, it is very appropriate to feel angry at them. Our feelings are our right! Giving to our self is also our right. If we have worked hard for it, we deserve it! One is only selfish if one’s actions deprive someone else, who is in equal or greater need. For all of us, reevaluating our “shoulds” is the nicest thing we can do to reduce stress for our physical and mental health. It is also important for the health of those close to us, since they are also affected by our “shoulds” and learn from our example.
Methods of Stress Reduction
Relaxation and visualization
Wear loose clothes and find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Breathe slowly and deeply and focus on your chest expanding and contracting. Repeat this several times and become aware of the tension leaving your body. Then, imagine you are walking in a place you find comforting–a particular beach, a path in the woods, even a quiet shopping mall. Enjoy the sights and fragrances, and gentle breeze and sunlight or shade as you are walking. Note something in particular for a couple of minutes to focus on you like. During this time continue your deep breathing and gently push aside other thoughts. Listening to music you like while visualizing can also be beneficial. Experiment; this can even be done during a break at work.
Exercise, besides being generally healthy, can greatly reduce stress. We are talking about gentle exercise, exercises where you form a pleasant rhythm for yourself (like walking, jogging or bicycle riding), or ones with a pleasant social component (golf, tennis, volleyball).
Reframing is the process of taking unpleasant and stressful thoughts and looking at them in a different way so they are less stressful or at least less significant than we previously thought. For example, most of us have become more stressed out while driving as more and more cars are on the road. We get upset when someone cuts in front of us or is discourteous. In actuality we are giving these people more attention than they deserve and we tremendously increase our stress. In a class I once attended, completely unrelated to stress, the teacher gave an excellent suggestion of how to deal with such situations. He recalled someone from his younger years, Freddie, who was always a pain in the neck and whom he had learned to ignore. Now when someone cuts him off he says “Oh, that’s a Freddie!” smiles, and forgets the person. This is a way of giving disturbing people the attention they deserve–none! Try it; come up with a name for such people and see just how effective this can actually be.
Another important example of reframing is to begin viewing our mistakes as learning experiences rather than failures. Most of our mistakes are quite insignificant in the scope of our entire lives. As Richard Carlson discusses in his book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, try to imagine the importance of a mistake or slight 3 or 5 years from now. If it won’t make a difference, try not to make a big thing of it. Our pattern of stressing over such things does much more harm to our health and our lives than it helps. Instead, work on accepting your humanness and learn from your mistakes rather than beating yourself up for them.
As adults we need to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes because of the complexity of our lives or the carryover of pains from our childhood, stress continues to be a major factor in our lives, in spite of all of our attempts to reduce it. If this is the case, it is a good idea to speak to a professional in order to understand ourselves better and to better deal with the internal and external issues we are facing. Counseling is not “just for crazy people.” Most of my clients and those of other therapists are just average people with problems in daily living they haven’t been able to master themselves. We only go through life once, and we deserve to do whatever we can to make it more meaningful and more enjoyable.
The Power of the Little Things in Life
These small day-to-day activities are so important in reducing stress that they deserve a special section for themselves.
- Throughout the day take little pauses–sing in the shower or while you are driving, take a 5-10 minute break and concentrate on eating a piece of fruit or drinking a beverage so you can just enjoy the taste, close your eyes for 3 minutes and visualize a restful or pleasant scene or activity. Do an additional one immediately.
- When you pass someone on the street, in a store, or at work, smile and maybe even say “hi.” The other person will probably smile back, and this will help you feel better and be better able to reduce stressors later in the day.
- In the morning think of one thing you can accomplish that is small but will make you feel good. This can be going to the store and finally getting something you always forget, checking the batteries in your flashlight or smoke detector, writing or emailing a friend, spending a half hour to begin clearing that pile of papers, playing a game for a half hour with a member of your family, or telling someone close how important they are to you.
- Smiling and laughing are great stress reducers. Try injecting some light humor into your conversations, watch or read funny material–even the comics or Readers Digest jokes, or think of something amusing that happened during the day. We tend to focus more on the negatives than the positive or amusing things. Most important, try to be less hard on yourself and begin to learn how to laugh at your little mistakes or idiosyncrasies.
- Plan in the evening or the next morning something nice you will do for yourself later in the day–reading a book you like for half an hour, watching a favorite TV show, taking a warm bath, calling a friend, or going to a nearby park for a half hour.
Rather than being an exhaustive list, these are just food for thought to stimulate your own thinking. Please feel free to email me any other ideas you have. Doing two or more of these things each day will have a surprising impact in reducing your stress level, increasing your pleasure in life, and extending your life.
The following questionnaire* has been developed from my own work and the work of others. It is most valid when answered honestly, and when not too much time is spent on any one item. Each item is measured on a 5-point scale. Please write down the number on each item that best represents your self-assessment.
1 almost never 2 rarely 3 sometimes 4 quite often 5 most of the time
- It is important for me to do my work perfectly
- I keep repeating negative thoughts to myself
- There is a lot of tension at home
- I get too busy or forget to play and have fun
- It is hard for me to either fall asleep or remain asleep
- I am forgetful
- I am troubled by minor illnesses
- I worry about what others think of me
- I lose my temper over little irritations
- At the end of my working day, I find myself emotionally empty
Add your score
30 or below — you experience the usual stressors of daily life.
31 – 37 — seriously examine ways to reduce your stress and increase your pleasure in life
38 and above — stress is too much a part of your life and is probably affecting your health; seriously consider getting some assistance.
*This material is protected under copyright laws and may not be reproduced, for other than personal use in part or whole, without the express permission of Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.
Dr. Malcolm Miller is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in West Los Angeles and Torrance, and is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. He may be contacted at (310) 822-9998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2017 by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.