Friday, March 16, 2012

Reducing Stress

No one contests that we live in stressful times. When we talk about “the news”, it’s almost always about bad news. When we talk about finances, it’s usually not about a “windfall” we have received. When the subject of jobs or parenting or close relationships comes up, it frequently is about the difficulties in maintaining a good attitude in the midst of the struggles. All of this produces stress, or more accurately, distress.

So much of what challenges us cannot be eliminated, but sometimes its toxic effects on our emotions can be reduced. The secret is to control what is in our power to control, and to release the rest to God in prayer. Wisdom lets us know what is controllable and what is not.

One powerful tool is developing protective filters.

I can decide what enters my consciousness to a great degree by intentionally limiting the input of stressful data that I have little or no control over. I have the ability to choose what I want to read, watch, and listen to on a regular basis. I can control the telephone; I don’t have to let it control me. I can regulate the noise level in my environment whenever possible. I can manage my time commitments by learning to say “no”. I can intentionally feed myself uplifting media and positive self-talk.

The second powerful tool is using relaxation exercises. The following is borrowed from Dr. Siang-Yang Tan.

Four Muscle Group Relaxation Exercise (Tan)

This relaxation technique involves the alternate tensing and then relaxing or letting go of various muscle parts of your body. First, sit in a comfortable chair or recliner, in a room and at a time when you will not be disturbed. Give yourself at least 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted “relaxation time” to practice the relaxation exercises, beginning with the leg muscles and ending with the arm muscles. It helps to close your eyes.

            Leg muscles. You can tense your thigh and calf muscles by pointing you toes toward you face and tensing these muscles hard. Hold the tension for 7-10 seconds by counting slowly up to 5. Then let go and allow the muscles to go limp. Now use self-talk: tell yourself to “just relax, let go of all the tension….allow the muscles to smooth out….take it easy….just unwind and relax more and more….” Continue with this relaxation patter for 20 seconds or so before proceeding to repeat this exercise. Do this exercise a total of 4 times. Then proceed to the next one.

            Upper-body muscles. After completing the exercise for the leg muscles, focus your attention on the muscles of your upper body --- your chest, stomach, shoulders, and back. Tense them by taking in a a slow, deep breath, holding it for a count up to 5 (about 7-10 seconds), pulling your stomach in, and arching your back (unless you have a back injury or back pain, in which case you should not arch your back). When you reach a count of 5, slowly exhale and let go of all the muscle tension, again telling yourself mentally to relax and take it easy, using the relaxations patter or self-talk for about 20 seconds or so before repeating the exercise. Do it a total of 4 times.

            Face and neck muscles. Focus your attention on the muscles of your face and neck regions. Tense these muscles by closing your eyes tightly, biting you teeth, smiling back, pushing your chin down as if to touch your chest, but not allowing it to touch your chest. Hold the tension for a count up to 5 (7-10 seconds), and then relax and let go of these muscles, again using the relaxation patter for up to 20 seconds or so. Repeat this exercise for a total of 4 times before proceeding to the final exercise.

            Arm muscles. Now focus your attention on the muscles of your arms. Tense them by clenching your fists and flexing you biceps…..Hold the tension for a count up to 5 (7-10 seconds), and then relax and let your arms flop down limp by your sides. Again, engage in the relaxation patter for 20 seconds or so before repeating the exercise, doing it a total of 4 times.

            At the end you should give yourself a couple more minutes to just sit quietly and enjoy the feelings of deeper and more complete muscle relaxation that you are experiencing by this time. Then, count from 1 to 5 as you slowly move your muscles, and eventually open your eyes at the count of 5, feeling very relaxed and refreshed.

            In addition, if you wish, once your have done the above exercise you can remain seated quietly, eyes closed, and then breathe through your nose and then say a word such as “peace” or “shhhhhhh” (as in quiet) as you slowly exhale through your mouth while envisioning a beautiful safe place. Maintain a quiet and passive attitude throughout for a total time of about twenty minutes, even if you have distracting thoughts at times.

Try this exercise and let me know how it worked for you.


  1. Hi Nan and Dave,

    Do you ever listen to Focus on the Family? They had a great 2part show with ? (forgot his name!) about shoring up marriages. It was really encouraging and even though I'm not married I found the wisdom shared applicable for singles, too. Here's the link:{0ECE876D-6136-422D-9C4B-E3F1B13FD507} It aired March 15 and 16th. Hope you have a chance to listen to it. Jo Saraceno