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Methods of Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

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Stress reduction methods can be thought of as serving two functions. There are restorative techniques for reducing the unpleasant and unhealthy emotional effects of stressful events that have already occurred, and there are preventative techniques that can help you avoid succumbing to stress in the first place (or at least buffer against and reduce the impact of upcoming inevitably stressful events).

There isn't any neat and orderly way to divide the various techniques we describe here into unique categories. While some techniques are primarily useful for their restorative function, and some for their preventative function, many may serve both functions at the same time. For instance, the diaphragmatic breathing technique described below could be used to deal with anxiety feelings that have already occurred, or it could be used to prepare for a stressful event (e.g., a speech, sporting event, meeting with your boss, etc.). Overall, the best, most comprehensive stress reduction plans consist of techniques that offer a mixture of preventive and restorative benefits.

We start our discussion of stress coping strategies by focusing on methods primarily suited for decreasing the effects of existing stress symptoms. Here, the idea is to refine your ability to calm yourself down from an aroused state that the sympathetic nervous system has created. We cover preventative coping strategies later on in the article.

Restorative Strategies for Reducing Stress

In the following sections of this document, we review various techniques and practices that are useful for recovering from the negative effects of stress. We have organized our presentation of these techniques based on the basic modalities different strategies share: breath-related techniques, kinetic or movement-oriented techniques, haptic or touch-oriented techniques, useful medications, psychological interventions, and environmental awareness strategies. Our categorization is imperfect, and many strategies defy such simple placement. Nevertheless, organizing the strategies in this manner hopefully makes choosing one from among the group a much simpler prospect.

Stress Relief via Breathing Strategies

The body's primary natural method of stress response reduction is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the tension producing action of the sympathetic nervous system. There is perhaps no more direct route to parasympathetic nervous system activation than through the breath. Conscious deep rhythmic breathing has a calming effect on the body, and tends to help the heart rate to slow down, the mind to quiet and attention to turn inward towards the sensation of inhalation and exhalation.

Benson's Relaxation Response

In his landmark study of the arousal and calming mechanisms of the body, Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson discovered that the automatically triggered parasympathetic nervous system response (which he referred to as the "relaxation response") that normally ends a stress episode can be triggered in a conscious and intentional fashion through the use of a variety of stress reduction techniques. Among the various techniques Benson recommended to engage the relaxation response is this simple breath-oriented technique which can be practiced most anywhere:

  • Pick a focus word or phrase. (Benson suggests the words "one" or "calm", but any word you find restful will work well.)
  • Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Relax your muscles.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally, repeating your focus word or phrase as you exhale.

Continue this simple practice for ten to twenty minutes. Do not worry about how well you are doing. Try to concentrate on your breathing and your focus word. If other thoughts come to mind, gently direct your mind back towards your breathing.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Another related simple and effective method for releasing body tension is diaphragmatic breathing, which involves breathing deeply from your diaphragm (a muscle located at the base of your abdomen). Adults tend to breathe in a very shallow way, using only the upper part of the chest. This tendency is exacerbated during times of stress, as breathing becomes even more shallow and rapid. Deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing releases tension from the muscles by improving the flow of oxygenated blood throughout our bodies.

You can experience the difference between shallow breathing and deep breathing by trying this exercise:

  • Lie down on a bed or on the floor. Bend your knees and relax your toes. Keep your spine straight. If necessary, put a small pillow under your lower back for support.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest (or use magazines or light books in place of your hands).
  • Inhale slowly and deeply. Pay attention to which hand (or book or magazine) moves the most. Shallow breathing causes the hand on the chest to move the most. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing causes the hand on your abdomen to move the most.
  • Continue breathing deeply for 5 or 10 minutes. Concentrate on moving the hand on your abdomen more than the hand on your chest.

Once you have mastered the diaphragmatic breathing technique, you can use it any time (and any place) you feel the need to release stress.