In last week’s blog entry I reviewed highlights from the recently released Stress in America Survey, a national evaluation of American stress conducted annually by the American Psychological Association. In this week’s entry I will review four of my favorite, perhaps less broadly known, stress management strategies.
I suppose just about everyone reading this blog knows that the tripod of effective stress management is healthy sleep, regular physical activity and a balanced diet. I suppose just about everyone also knows that certain techniques commonly used to manage stress are ultimately ineffective or even toxic (e.g., smoking, drinking alcohol). So, I won’t make those points here. What I would like to focus on are four strategies that might not be as well promulgated but which nonetheless have an impressive empirical track record supporting their usage.
#1. Be in the moment. So often our thoughts are in places other than the moment before us; or we might be partially in the moment and partially somewhere else. The science behind “mindfulness” indicates that methods for tuning into the moment facilitate peace and effective stress management. There are so many ways to do this: meditating, studying the details of the environment in which we find ourselves, mindful photography, mindful eating and so forth. This can be done in a few moments (e.g., see www.donothingfor2minutes.com) or can be a sustained practice (e.g., see The Power of Now).
#2. Practice gratitude. I’m not suggesting that someone try to be grateful for things that are not true, but merely to tune into those things that promote grateful feelings and thoughts. Our minds can be like hyperactive squirrels as they ping pong from one stressful thought to another. A gratitude practice can be a way of inserting true and uplifting thoughts, which then help to manage stress. Like mindfulness strategies, gratitude can be practiced in snatches of time (e.g., reflecting on things one is grateful for while showering) or be more elaborate (e.g., writing a gratitude letter). Enter the term “gratitude” in the search bar above for some additional ideas.
#3. Perform acts of kindness. The phenomenon of the “helpers high” has been scientifically established to be true. Sometimes stress causes us to shrink inwards, making the notion of being kind to others seem impractical. However, being intentionally kind can lift one’s mood and promote a sense of meaning. I don’t know that this next statement has been empirically investigated, so take it with a grain of salt. But my experience is that when kindness is done for the purpose of creating a helper’s high it may offer a more limited benefit. It’s almost like one must surrender all expectation of a return on the investment in order to experience such a return. This also can be done simply and quickly or in a more sustained and elaborate fashion. Just enter the term “kindness” in the search bar above for some ideas.
#4. Practice the Serenity Prayer. (Google the prayer if you’re not familiar with it.) One can be an atheist and still receive the psychological benefit of practicing this construct. Many types of personal, family and institutional illnesses flow from trying to control important things that can’t be controlled. This is part of the reason why 12-step recovery programs routinely use this prayer. The power of this prayer warrants all of us posting it where we can be reminded of it regularly. By the way, releasing control doesn’t mean becoming cold or indifferent to pain or unfortunate events. It just means that I don’t make myself sick trying to control that which is outside my control. Click here for an entry I wrote on using this prayer in parenting.