Stress Relief: Coping with
in a Difficult World
My friend Liz is a highly successful
lawyer in her mid-thirties. She has all the material
trappings of success yet her life is spiraling out of
control. She feels guilty that she doesn’t spend
enough time with her young child. Pressure at work is
intense and she frequently spends half the night
working. She has been on six holidays so far this year
(which sounds great), each time telling me, "Jane,
I’ve really got to get my head together," yet
each time she comes back more disillusioned. She is
suffering total burnout, a classic victim of stress.
Even more distressing is
the case of my niece, Kate, who at just nine years old
already shows symptoms of severe stress. At school she’s
under enormous pressure to do well in exams and has
several hours of homework every night. She shows clear
evidence of anxiety, has nightmares, separation anxiety
and the start of obsessive-compulsive disorder. As far
as I can see, it’s only going to get worse when she
goes to her senior school.
I’m not usually a doom and gloom merchant but I’m
getting increasingly worried about stress. It’s all
very well and good to say that stress can be
"good," that there is such a thing as
"positive stress" but, in my experience,
nobody I know is loving his or her stress. We’re
getting ourselves into deep dark misery – and it’s
getting worse. The 21st century is a more difficult
place than we ever imagined. Life is changing faster
than anyone could have predicted and the bottom line is
that we’re just not coping.
We’re seeing the inexorable rise of
"brownout" and burnout – which lead to
depression, anxiety and despair; in some cases mental or
physical breakdown, even suicide. Psychologists witness
the onslaught of new and frightening phenomena, such as
"desk rage" where workers resort to stand-up
rows with their colleagues because of work pressures. We’re
starting to hear about "future shock
syndrome," "information fatigue syndrome"
and "data smog" as the information highway
sends our minds into gridlock.
It’s not just at work either. Cracks are appearing
in our relationships, our families and in society as a
whole. We feel ourselves failing as parents, as
partners, as friends, as people – because, contrary to
what we’ve been told, we simply can’t have it all.
We just don’t have the time to do it all.
A report from the International Labour Organisation
predicts a dramatic worldwide increase in stress as new
technologies grow and globalisation accelerates. A
recent survey found that more than 75% of Americans
alone feel they’re not coping. Stress is becoming the
ruling factor in our lives.
This isn’t very positive and it certainly isn’t
very soulful but I hope you haven’t given up yet. The
point of banging on in this way is to show that, if you’re
suffering from stress, you’re certainly not alone. Our
culture demands that we cope, that we put on a brave
face, that we struggle through. It’s weak to admit you
suffer from stress. Well, what a load of nonsense! We’re
petrified of failure; guilty because we imagine we’re
the only ones who feel this way. Yet the truth is, we’re
all facing much the same dilemmas – it’s just that
few of us will openly admit them. We’re stifling our
fears, our anxieties, our anger and our misery – and
so the problem grows.
I will be totally honest, up front, and say that the
suggestions in this feature won’t cure the stress of
the world. My own feeling is that we need a sea-change
in the way we live, the way our society functions,
before we can see a real dip in our global stress
levels. But there are ways and means of coping with
stress on a day to day basis. To take the edge off. To
make stress manageable. So this feature is going to be
as practical as I can make it, stuffed full of tips for
instant stress-busting and more long-term tactics. You’ll
probably find that some are more appealing than others
– so take your pick. But I would seriously recommend
you try to incorporate at least one of the longer-term
stress strategies into your life. They can be real
lifesavers – literally.
SHOCK TACTICS FOR SHORT-TERM
These can be useful for occasions
when you need immediate relief for tension and stress:
- Don't fly for the coffee machine or reach for a Coke
- caffeine merely exacerbates your stress mechanisms.
Drink a long cool glass of water or orange juice
instead. Then get up, walk or jog around outside in the
fresh air for a few minutes. At the very least, get up
and stretch - it gets the oxygen round your body, gives
you fresh energy and stops rising panic.
- Vent your spleen (but not on other people!). If it's
feasible, yelling your head off is a wonderful way of
getting the stress out (I regularly scream like a
banshee while belting along the motorway.). Or invest in
a punching bag for the office/home (wherever) and give
it a good thump or six.
- Practice constructive vandalism: Beat the hell out
of bubble wrap. It sounds acutely weird but a professor
of psychology, Dr Kathleen Dillon, has proved that
popping bubble wrap (apparently the big bubbles work
best) dispels pent-up nervous energy and muscle tension.
She also points out that, unlike many other forms of
stress-busting, bubble-popping requires no instruction
and no practice. Try it – it really does seem to help.
- Stuck in traffic? Use your car as a portable sound
therapy session – nobody will be any the wiser (unless
you have all the windows open!). Try the following:
- Humming – apparently babies hum to soothe
themselves – so you can do the same. Just hum very
gently and feel it resonating through your body. Where
can you feel the hum? Does it change if you alter the
note of your humming?
- Sighing – indulge in really elongated, noisy sighs
and groans –they really help to disperse negative
emotions. But really let it all hang out –
half-hearted groans just don’t do it!
- Singing – tune in to a cheerful radio station or
sling in a feel-good CD and sing along (however
tunelessly). Most people find that soft soothing music
actually makes them more irritable when they’re tense
– instead try belting it out to Meatloaf or Tina
- Try this simple tension-release. Clasp your hands
behind your head, so your palms are touching the back of
your head. Let the weight of your hands pull your head
forward, feeling the stretch in your neck and all the
way down your spine. Don’t pull down; simply relax
your arms and let the weight of your hands do all the
work. Hold the position for at least 20 seconds, longer
if you can. Breathe out with a deep sigh,
"A-a-a-ah". Repeat several times if possible.
- Learn to breathe -properly. Breathing exercises are
perhaps the most effective, instant way to reduce
stress. Ujjayi, the "victorious" breath is
simple yet incredibly effective – use it whenever you
feel the need to "keep your cool". Here’s
- Learn how to practice ujjayi sitting comfortably
with your eyes gently shut. With a little practice you
can use ujjayi in any position.
- Breathe in deeply, contracting the muscles around
the top of your windpipe. Focus on your throat and you
should hear a gentle hissing sound.
- Now breathe out as slowly as possible, closing off
the muscles around the epiglottis. Your breath will
sound rasping, as if you had a bad cold.
- Breathe in and out in this way six times.
- Now relax and breathe normally.
- If you have time, repeat this cycle (six ujjayi
breaths then six normal breaths) for four cycles.
- Try this chi kung exercise – called Wu Chi. It’s
something you can do pretty well anywhere – it’s
particularly good if you’re waiting for public
transport or an elevator and feel your stress levels
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Find your
natural balance - your weight should neither be too far
forward or too far back.
- Feel the rim of your foot, your heel, your little
toe and big toe relaxed on the ground.
- Keep your knees relaxed. Check that your knees are
exactly over your feet.
- Relax your lower back. Relax your stomach and
- Let your chest become hollow. Relax and slightly
round your shoulders.
- Imagine you have a pigtail on top of your head,
which is tied to a rafter on the roof. Let your head
float lightly and freely. Relax your tongue, mouth and
- Stay in this position with your hands hanging
loosely by your sides.
- Envisage a pure flame shimmering through your body,
giving you energy.
- When you’re ready, simply bring your awareness
back to the world around you.
- Office gymnastics. You’d be surprised where you
hold tension. These simple exercises give you the chance
to off-load some tension, without co-workers being any
- Sit comfortably with your arms free.
- Bring your shoulders right up to your ears,
shrugging as hard as you can. Intensify the tension in
your body as much as possible. Breathe in as you shrug
- Tilt your head back as far as it will go.
- Exhale and let your shoulders flop down and your
head return forwards. You should feel a sense of heat in
your neck and shoulders - more blood is now able to
circulate through this high-tension area. Repeat as
HAND AND FOOT GYMNASTICS
Repeat each step five times.
- Curl your toes as tight as you can and release.
- Curl your entire foot down towards your heel and
then stretch upwards.
- Now circle your feet slowly clockwise and
- Clench your hands into fists. Then release, opening
the fingers wide.
- Stretch your fingers up at right-angles to your
wrist. Then bring them down so they point towards the
- Make fists again and circle clockwise and then
LONGER-TERM STRESS STRATEGIES
If you regularly find yourself at
boiling point, it's time to adopt some deeper
self-preservation techniques. I’d suggest everyone
practices the good mood diet, incorporates regular
exercise into their lives and uses at least one
dedicated stress-busting technique on top (i.e.
to find your nearest tank.
- Adopt a good mood diet. Doctors have always
recommended regular meals to combat stress, but now they
know that the actual foods we eat can affect our mental
state. Depression, anxiety, an inability to concentrate,
panic attacks, mood swings, forgetfulness and lethargy -
all symptoms of stress - can be triggered by sensitivity
to food. The anti-stress diet is high in fruit,
vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains. In their book
Superfoods, Michael Van Straten and Barbara Griggs
recommend grapes, millet, wheatgerm, brewer's yeast,
oats, molasses and buckwheat as anti-stress superfoods.
Foods to avoid include all refined carbohydrates, sugar,
tea and coffee, sweetened commercial drinks and excess
- Exercise - strenuously. A good tough aerobic workout
can release stress like virtually nothing else. When the
body cannot rid itself of the excess hormones generated
by stress it causes a harmful state in which the mind
and body are permanently aroused. If you're stuck in
this twilight zone you need to kick yourself into a
state of pure physical arousal rather than pure mental
arousal, then you can swing back into the state we know
as rest. Try to get yourself into the habit of going to
the gym after work instead of automatically heading for
a bar or reaching into the fridge for a beer. Maybe
squeeze in an aerobics class at lunchtime (providing it
doesn’t cause you more stress getting there and back).
Choose a form of exercise you enjoy. Team sports can be
fun and motivating – what did you enjoy at school?
Martial arts are a fabulous way to work off stress –
particularly if you tend to erupt in anger. Or try out
something more unusual – check out your local sports
centre for ideas. It’s worth balancing your strenuous
workouts with quieter classes – try yoga, chi kung,
tai chi or Pilates.
- Float. I bang on about floating a lot because I
really do think it’s an incredibly undervalued
therapy. If you haven't yet tried it - do have a go.
Regularly floating in the equivalent of an isolation
tank is one of the best stress-busters going. Not only
does it relieve stress but it also enhances creativity,
decision making and problem solving so it is often used
by high-flying businesspeople and creative souls. One of
the frequent criticisms of stress-busting techniques is
that they take up too much valuable time - "I'd
love to do meditation or yoga," says a very
stressed friend of mine, "But I just don't have the
time." Well, floating could save you time in the
long run. The ideas you come up with or the creative
solutions to sticky problems might well save you hours
in the normal world. Oh, and guess what, it feels great
(and not claustrophobic, I promise!). Check out
Delegate. You're not superman or superwoman - you
can't do absolutely everything and, believe it or not,
the world won't fall apart if you say no occasionally.
Stress management counselors all recommend taking stock
of your life and deciding what's important and what can
go by the wayside. Write a list of what causes you
stress and see if there is anything that you can drop or
Clear the clutter. A messy desk, office, home all
contribute to stress levels. How can you ever relax if
you don’t know what’s lurking in that huge pile of
papers? If you can’t put your hand on what you need
without an hour-long hair-pulling search? Have a brutal
turn-out every week for papers, post etc (use it, file
it or bin it) and periodic purges of the other
"stuff" in your life. If you need more help
check out my book Spirit
of the Home which will hold your hand through the
Meditate. Researchers have found that meditation
reduces hypertension, serum cholesterol and blood
cortisol which is related to stress in the body.
Meditators see their doctors less and spend 70% fewer
days in hospital. Anxiety, depression and irritability
all decrease while memory improves and reaction times
become faster. Meditators, it appears, have more
stamina, a happier disposition and even enjoy better
relationships. Why wait? For tips on meditation check
out my book Live
THE REAL SOLUTION
I hope the suggestions above help.
They are pretty well tried, tested and trusted so they
should work for you too. But if you really want to beat
stress once and for all, I think you have to go deeper
still. This isn’t a popular thing to say but if you
really want to stress-proof your life, you have to make
some (possibly uncomfortable) decisions. Ask yourself
- What is causing the main stress in my life?
- If I woke up tomorrow and that stress had vanished,
how would I know? How would I behave? How would other
people know I was different?
- What steps could I take to get to that place?
These are very simple questions yet
the answers might shatter your world. And maybe that’s
a good thing. We’re living life like a race at the
moment – always seeking more (more money, more
possessions, more prestige, more excitement). We’re
losing track of what really matters. Why are we pushing
our children to the point where they are suffering
stress as young as four or five years old? What is so
important about earning another 10K that you’re
willing to sacrifice your relationship for it? Do you
really need a house that’s larger than your neighbor’s?
This part of the equation won’t be
for everyone (though as you’re reading
SoufulLiving.com I’m willing to bet you’re more up
for it than most people!). My feeling is that to beat
stress we have to re-evaluate our lives entirely.
- What are the most important things in your life?
- How would you feel if you were told you had a month
to live? How would you want to spend that time?
- If you were looking back on your life as an old
man/woman, what advice would you give to the younger
I can’t tell you what to do. Only
you know that. My suspicion is that, at the base line,
most of us do know what we need to do. Good luck.
Many of the exercises from this feature come from my
Five Minute Healer (Simon & Schuster). You’ll
also find ways to stress-proof your life in Detox for
Body Mind and Spirit (Tuttle) and Mind
Body Spirit (Carlton).
Read more of Jane Alexander’s work
on her website: www.janealexander.org
Copyright © 2002 Jane
Alexander. All Rights Reserved.
Jane Alexander is a UK-based writer on natural health, holistic living and
contemporary spirituality. She has written sixteen
books on holistic (and soulful) living, including the
bestselling Spirit of the Home (Thorsons), The
Energy Secret (Element) and The Five Minute
Healer (Simon & Schuster). Her website, www.janealexander.org
is full of tips for living soulfully.