Stress management begins with good general fitness habits. Regular exercise, good nutrition, sound sleep patterns, and other good health habits can all help reduce your stress levels. But beyond these fitness basics there are a number of practices you can use to specifically manage stress.
Many of these practices come from the mind-body tradition. Your body responds to the way you think, feel, and act, especially when under stress. The idea behind mind-body stress-management practices is that you can improve your body’s health by changing your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Mindfulness is described by Jon Kabat-Zinn (one of the leading experts in the field) as “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.” By living in the present moment and accepting your thoughts and emotions without judgment, you can calm your mind instead of constantly “rehearsing and rehashing” your life (as one psychologist puts it). The best known mindfulness practice is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was developed at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness by Kabat-Zinn. The center’s website has a directory of MBSR practitioners.
- Deep Breathing
Simply taking a big, deep breath can begin to undo the mind-body disconnect. Try it right now. Sit or stand comfortably. Take a long, slow, deep breath in through your nose, letting your belly rise. Slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat two or three times. Visualizing your breath can help focus your breath. Here’s my favorite breathing visualization exercise.
- Progressive Relaxation
Progressive relaxation involves scanning your body, tuning in to recognize stress symptoms, and then letting the symptoms go one by one. Typically, progressive relaxation is guided by an audio recording or an actual human guide. You can also simply scan your own body and let the stress go.
Meditation is a powerful way to train the mind to reconnect with the body. Stilling and focusing the mind instills a sense of calm and peace which can reduce the effects of stress (among many other benefits). There are numerous secular and religious meditation disciplines to choose from, so you can always find a meditation practice that meshes with your personal, cultural, and religious needs. To master a meditation practice typically requires just that, a fair amount of practice, so finding a good teacher as you set out is important.
- Meditative Practices
Many people find stress relief in simple, repetitive practices like knitting, gardening, or labyrinth walking. I’m sure you can think of many other similar practices. Any activity that engages you yet requires little conscious attention (and is safe) can become your meditative practice.
Research has shown that exposure to greenery reduces the stress response. Getting outside and walking in a park or other natural setting on a regular basis is ideal. But several studies show that even a houseplant or pictures of nature can give you some of the benefits. So be sure to include a plant or two in your office decor. Perhaps you can even talk your boss into joining the growing number of enlightened workplaces that have indoor gardens.
- Expressing Gratitude
A common element in many mind-body practices is the expression of gratitude. When you’re under stress, it is all too easy to dwell on the negative, on what’s lacking in your job or life. By instead expressing gratitude for what you do have you can reverse this pattern. One common gratitude practice is to end your day by listing all of the things you are grateful for. So, as you leave the office each day, or as you prepare for bed each night, take a few minutes to recount all of the positives in your life.
- Orderly & Organized Environment
I don’t know about you, but to me there is nothing more stressful than a messy office. Eliminating clutter and keeping on top of my in box have done as much to ease my stress as any of the practices I list above. But that may just be me. There’s also this quote from Albert Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
- Relaxation Massage
I would probably be kicked out of my professional massage associations if I neglected to mention massage therapy. Stress reduction is one of the best-documented benefits of massage. The AMTA provides a handy massage therapist directory. You can also find a good massage therapist on Yelp or your favorite local directory