• Health

A stress management system for challenging times

This title caught your eye because you are, perhaps, experiencing a lot more stress and anxiety right now than you were a week or a month ago. What I will share with you will not change the way things are, but it may change how you respond to those things.

First, you need to be doing all the smart things like washing hands, minimizing contact with others, and everything recommended by reputable organizations like the Centers for Disease Control. There are a lot of smart people working on this situation day and night.

Second, you need to stop reading all of the nonsense on social media. You are interested in facts, not opinions.

Do those two things and your stress level should start to drop.

Now, you're ready to learn specific ways to counter the stress that you are experiencing.

About Stress

By now, we all have heard about the negative impact that stress can have on health and wellbeing. Most relevant in our current time is the fact that chronic stress weakens the immune system. Right now, we all need that to be working at 100 percent capacity.

So, let's talk about how to counteract stress by examining what stress does to you.

Stress in your body can feel like:

1. A lot of muscle tension — so much so that you may have stopped noticing it. It may have become your new "normal."

2. Tension is systemic, meaning it affects all our systems. Increased overall tension causes the veins in your extremities to contract, restricting blood flow. Less blood flow causes your hands and feet to feel colder than normal, and makes your pulse more difficult to find.

3. Tension in your chest muscles restricts your breathing to just the upper part of your lungs.

There are a lot of other things happening, but these are the most noticeable effects, and the ones we can take action on.

To alleviate stress, you need to create the opposite of each condition listed above. To destress:

1. Deeply relax your muscles. Allow the tension to dissipate.

2. Muscle relaxation will make your hands and feet become warmer. Your pulse will also be much easier to find. In fact, with deep relaxation, you can feel your pulse wherever and whenever you want to.

3. Relaxing the tension in your chest allows you to breathe more deeply with less effort.

Piece of cake, right?

Most likely, not.

It turns out that the conditions in our stress list are not under direct control of your conscious mind. They are under control of your autonomic nervous system, which regulates things like your heart rate, sleep cycle and breathing reflex.

While you can't consciously control the autonomic nervous system, you can most certainly influence it, and that is all you really need.

There are quite a few ways to cultivate the relaxed state that you need to reduce stress: tai chi, yoga, meditation, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and mindfulness, to name a few. All are different paths to the same destination.

One method I recommend is called Autogenic Training. Don't let the name put you off. It just means "self-generated," and is unique in the list in that it does not require a teacher — you can get everything you need to get started from a book or website.

AT was developed in the 1930s to specifically target stress, and its exercise set moves progressively through each of the conditions in our stress list. Although not as widely known as the other solutions, its strength is that it was specifically developed to counteract stress. Most of the other activities listed have some other agenda, and the stress-lowering aspect is merely incidental.

The AT process consists of 6 exercises. Each exercise takes about a week, on average, to acquire proficiency. The exercises are progressively linked — you must be able to succeed at the first exercise before moving on to the next. The first four exercises are the most important (in my opinion), so in four weeks of daily practice you should start to notice a significant, measurable lowering of stress.

If you are interested in reading more about stress management, a great resource is The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson. Get a copy and read it straight through. It is an easy read. Then, go through it more thoroughly, looking for concepts that appeal to you. There are some excellent exercises included. Try these and use those that work for you.

Stress management is a skill everyone can acquire. There are short, simple exercises that, when practiced at least once every day, have been proven to lower stress.

The "every day" part is the most important take-away.

Regardless of the method you choose: practice it, embrace it, and expect it to work. I have practiced AT several times daily for more than 10 years. It has helped me through several life crises during that time, and I plan to continue my practice indefinitely.

Samuel Norris Samuel Norris is the CEO (and entire staff) of 4th River LLC. His primary activities include teaching technical courses for the National White Collar Crime Center.