The ability to access your spiritual essence is perhaps the single most important and powerful practice that is available to you for stress management. When you engage in practices that allow you to access your spiritual essence, you are in fact getting in touch with an infinite reservoir of energy. These practices allow you to set aside your concerns and worries, quiet your mind and rest in the essence of your infinite, spiritual Being. When you “engage” your spiritual essence you are “disengaging” from that part of you that perceives and reacts to stress. Basically these practices allow you to set aside your ego and allow your awareness to rest in a space of wisdom, knowingness and compassion. Practices that are most useful and commonly used include meditation, contemplative prayer, and communing with nature.
Incorporate Exercise/Movement into your Daily Routine
One of the best antidotes for stress is exercise. Stress affects nearly every part of the body. Exercise, on the other hand, improves the functioning of nearly every part of the body that stress adversely affects.
Develop a daily exercise/movement routine that works for you. Ideally 30 minutes to an hour of exercise each day will help you immensely in coping with life’s stressors. The best exercise program involves a combination of anaerobic (weight–lifting, calisthenics etc.), aerobic (jogging, walking briskly, swimming, biking, aerobics classes, dancing etc.) and stretching/yoga. 70-80% of your exercise should be aerobic. Remember to begin your exercise activity at a slow controlled pace for 5 minutes or longer until your body warms up. After completing your exercise spend 5 to 10 minutes in stretching exercises.
Incorporate types of exercise and movement that you enjoy and that fit into your schedule. Remember, even doing twenty minutes of exercise a day is better than none. Use simple measures to incorporate movement into a full schedule. Weather permitting; take a walk outside during breaks and at lunchtime. Always take the stairs instead of an elevator. Instead of parking your car closest to your point of work or school park further away. When you get home from a stressful day of school, clinical or work put on some lively music and dance to your heart’s content. Create practices that are fun, doable and nurture your heart as well as you body.
Eat Whole Natural Foods
Stress upsets our nutritional balance, so careful attention to your diet during stressful times is crucially important. The body requires increased levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Thiamin, Riboflavin and protein when under stress. Eating whole natural foods with an emphasis on fresh vegetables, fruits, whole-grains and legumes helps the body receive the added nutrients needed during times of stress. Since stress increases the production of free radicals in your cells its important to increase your intake of anti-oxidants (Vitamin A, C, & E) either through supplements or whole food sources. (Thornton & Gold, 2000 p. E-5)
Also, since stress causes your metabolism to increase it is most beneficial to eat 5 to 6 low calorie nutritious meals during the day. This will provide you with a steady source of energy and maximize your physical stamina. It is important to eat foods that are low on the glycemic index, which measures the speed with which sugar from foods is released into the bloodstream. A slower release provides a steadier source of energy (Loehr & Schwartz p.50) There are foods and substances to avoid during times of stress. Avoid or eliminate caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Caffeine over-stimulates the adrenal glands and can further deplete your body of B-complex and C vitamins and induce symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness, fear, heart palpitations, nausea, restlessness, and tremors. (Null, p.80) So replace that cup of Starbucks with a cup of hot water and a slice of lemon. The hot lemon water will calm and relax you and also help with your digestion. Eliminate foods high in simple sugars (high glycemic index) from your diet such as processed foods, sodas, breads, and anything containing fructose, glucose, corn syrups, corn sweeteners, and white and brown sugars. Alcohol also contains a lot of simple sugar, so eliminating or avoiding alcoholic beverages is also advisable.
Eating consciously and in a settled atmosphere is very important. Stress oftentimes causes us to eat in a very rushed and anxious manner while preoccupied with disconcerting thoughts and worries. Consuming food in such a state predisposes us to digestive problems such as bloating, poor food absorption, indigestion, cramping, constipation, diarrhea and acid reflux. Make a habit to “sit down and slow down” while eating. Take a deep breathe, take a moment to express and really “feel” gratitude for the food and then create a special blessing of thanks. Turn off the TV, radio, put away the newspaper, light a candle and just focus on nurturing yourself.
Drink Plenty of Water
Drinking plenty of water is always important, but even more so during times of stress. When the body becomes dehydrated, the physiological processes that occur are some of the same ones that occur when coping with stress. The same hormones released in both states are endorphins, cortisone release factor, prolactin, vasopressin and rennin-angiotensin. "Consequently, dehydration can cause or further aggravate your stress, and stress will cause further dehydration”. (Batmanghelidj, F. p.57)
Most authorities recommend drinking at least six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Another guide for adequate water is that the number of ounces that you should drink equals your body weight divided by 2. For instance, if you weigh 150 lbs then you should consume 75 ounces of water each day (150 divided by 2 = 75). (Thornton, 2000. D-2) So, when you sit down to study makes sure you have a large glass of water on hand and don’t leave for school or clinical without your sport-sized bottle of water tucked securely in your backpack.
Calm Your Mind and Soothe Your Heart (Visualizations)
One area that creates a lot of stress for students is taking exams. How can visualization help change a very stressful and anxiety producing situation into a positive experience? Let’s apply the steps.
1. First define your goal and then create affirmations to support those goals. Rather than engaging in worrisome thoughts about not getting a good grade, or studying the wrong material, focus on the positive outcomes. Your goals/affirmations might be that: “I am efficient and focused in my studying; the material that I study is useful and appropriate; and I take exams with ease and receive excellent grades for my performance.”
2. Take a moment to relax. Take a deep breath and set aside other thoughts and concerns.
3. Now imagine yourself reaching these goals. Imagine what it feels like to enjoy studying, to feel good about learning material that will be useful to yourself and others. Enjoy the confidence that you have knowing that the material you are studying is appropriate. Then, imagine yourself actually taking the exam. Notice how satisfied you feel inside that you are well prepared for the exam and how good it feels to know the answers to most of the questions. Finally, imagine yourself having successfully completed the exam, handing in your paper and knowing with complete certainty that you did very well and are completely satisfied with your performance. How does your body feel. . . lighter and more relaxed? Emotionally . . . are you feeling a sense of relief? Get in touch with as many senses and feelings as you can. “See” and “feel” yourself successfully completing the exam.
Practice this visualization whenever you find yourself worrying about the exam or becoming scattered or inefficient in your studies.
Visualization is a tool that you can use to help deal with any stress producing situation. Whether the stress is related to managing studies, to clinical performance, to relationships with family, friends and co-workers, this is a tool that can help you mentally re-create and imagine healthy outcomes to life’s many challenges. The above process will only take a few minutes. Remember--if you can see it, feel it, and believe it . . . you can achieve it!
An affirmation is a positive statement that you develop and repeat to yourself in order to change negative thoughts and feelings to positive thoughts and feelings. They are one of the quickest and most powerful ways to shift you out of “stress mode” and into a more relaxed and calm state of being.
Heart-centering is a process that has many benefits and is especially effective in shifting your focus from stress and anxiety to one of caring and compassion. This process involves focusing your attention on your heart, setting aside concerns and thoughts, and connecting with feelings of love and compassion.
Advanced “Stop” Technique or “Stop in the Name of Love”
The advanced “stop” technique was developed by combining a behavioral modification technique, known as the “stop” technique, with the process of “heart centering”. The stop technique is useful in “stopping” undesirable thoughts, feelings or reactions that we experience. Consequently, it is useful in ridding us of our negative reactions to stressful people and situations.
Here are the instructions for practicing the “Advanced Stop Technique”.
- When you feel stress building from highly emotional communication, overwhelming situations, negative self-talk, etc, silently say “stop” to yourself.
- Visualize a “stop” sign in your mind
- Take a deep breath and focus your attention in and around the area of your heart, also known as your “heart-space”.
- Imagine that you are breathing into your heart-space – and then bring to mind a loving moment, thought, or feeling. For instance you could imagine holding an infant; cuddling or petting a favorite pet; being in love, etc.
- From your heart-space, do one of the following:
- Ask yourself, “What would be a useful or wise response to this situation?”
- Repeat an affirmation that is meaningful to you in this situation – such as:
- “I feel calm and peaceful inside, I listen and respond with kindness & compassion.”
- “I am quiet & centered inside and choose what is best right now.” (Thornton & Gold, 2001p.C-15)
More stress reduction exercises
Special thanks to Lucia Thornton RN, MSN, AHN-BC for developing this section of the AHNA Web site.