Habits for Stress Relief


Recognition of Signs of Stress

Stress relief requires first of all that you are able to know when you are beginning to feel stressed. Is it by feeling the sweat under your arms, moist hands or forehead? Headache? Pounding pulse? Aching shoulders or neck? Unusually stiff posture? Slow, deliberate speech? Red face? White fingers? Clenched fist? Shallow breathing? Do you feel faint or dizzy?

Early Intervention

The earlier you realize you are feeling stressed, the earlier you can intervene.

One of the most rapid methods of relief is to breathe deeply and slowly, using your diaphragm or stomach muscles to draw in the air to completely fill your lungs, and then to expel the air slowly and completely several times. This reduces the lactic acid in the blood stream and reduces the anxiety that results from an increase in lactic acid levels. If you deep-breathe too many times, you may feel dizzy or faint. Therefore, it is best to sit while doing this, if possible.

Secondly, (you may have read how to do this relaxation exercise in an earlier blog article) you can deliberately loosen any tight muscles that you feel. This also helps reduce the production of lactic acid. You can learn to ease those tense and tight muscles by learning “Progressive Relaxation.” Take a few minutes to try this now. Get yourself into a comfortable position. Now, beginning either at your head or your feet (it is easiest for me to begin at my feet) and tighten your toes (scalp) as tight as you can. H o l d it. H o l d it. FEEL THE TENSION. Now, let the muscles go loose, r e l a x, FEEL THE DIFFERENCE, breathe, breathe. Now, s l o w l y and progressively move up (or down) your body and alternately TENSE and r e l a x each set of muscles on the way. Give yourself directions slowly, in a low, calm and soothing voice.

With practice, you will learn to recognize the sensation of tension in your muscles and be able to relax them at will. It helps to practice this with your eyes closed after you have learned the main idea of the method.

Thirdly, you can clarify the situation and its stress. For example, there may be a misunderstanding of what is said and what is meant in any conversation.

“This whole scenario stinks. You’ve got to have marbles for brains! Take this and get me the contract for the home project!”

You can ask the person with whom you are talking to repeat what s/he said. If you think you heard accurately what s/he said, you can go a step further. Say something like this, “Let me see if I understand you correctly, (then repeat what you think was meant.)

If s/he agrees that you heard correctly, you can go another step and ask, “When you said that, did you mean (and describe what you think was meant)?”

“No, I meant a person has to be crazy to keep from going crazy on this deal. It is so frustrating, trying to get everyone agreed, change this, change it back, over and over.

“You need the Hanson-Warren contract, right? and it is getting to you?”


Or, if any one your companions appears annoyed, or indifferent, or begins to look or act strangely while you are talking, you can stop. Give adequate time for a response. The response may indicate that you have not communicated what you meant. Then you can try again to explain. When there is silence, you can ask, “I wonder if I am expressing myself accurately, tell me what you heard (or what you think I meant).” Usually such clarification eases the stress and restores harmony.

When you feel extreme stress in a repetitive situation, you may not be able to do the above. “Stress Inoculation,” described in the November 2013 blog at https://evelynmmaxwell.com/2013/11/05/use-relaxation-techniques-to-de-stress-oneself/ will be helpful in reducing your distressing emotions to a more manageable level. Then you can proceed more easily with the above clarifications.

When we improve understanding of one another, we decrease our levels of tension and frustration greatly. Often, when we hear what we have said, we revise our statement in order to be more clear and more loving. If we are fortunate enough to have someone challenge our statements, we may even see the need to change what we have said. Our thoughts and feelings may change after having to think more carefully. As my friend Dr. Grace Ketterman says, “Good communication must be a two way street.” We can learn to improve the traffic both ways.

Stressful situations differ so much that no simple formula is appropriate. Emergency situations such as fires or accidents do not lend themselves to much talk. At those times you have to rely on training, practice, instinct, prayer, and doing the best you can.

When Source of Stress is Unknown

When anxiety comes upon you without any particularly stressful situation, think first of how long it has been since you have eaten. If you have had a good-sized meal within the last two (2) hours, the feeling is not related to low blood sugar. If it has been three or four (3 or 4) hours since you last ate, or if you ate a small amount, you may be experiencing early signs of low blood sugar. As your blood sugar falls, the adrenal glands secrete hormones to try to raise it. At the same time, feelings related to anxiety and anger such as, nervousness, shakiness, sweating, headache or pounding pulse, are raised as emotional by-products of the same hormones and low blood sugar level.

If hunger is not part of the problem, you may be having an anxiety attack. Try to remember what you were thinking about just before you noticed that you were anxious (you may use the same signs for anxiety as you do for stress). The situation, things said, things you thought or saw, are clues to what is bothering you. As you talk about them and test their realistic quality, they usually become less fearful.  Anxiety attacks are so scary that they tend to repeat themselves so it is urgent that you find the root of the problem and address any symptoms at the first sign of distress rather than letting fear of an anxiety attack grow into a full-blown attack.

Another possible answer to a sense of anxiety, is that you may be one of the few people who need the natural chemical lithium to balance your physiologic responses. From our earlier discussion you may recall that lithium is often prescribed for physical conditions that are most apparent in excessive “highs” and “lows” emotionally. The “highs” may be happy ones or angry ones; the “lows” are associated with depression. The highs and lows may cycle although the lows are usually more persistent.

Although the action of lithium in the body is not entirely understood, it does seem to help stabilize blood sugar levels and adrenalin-like chemicals produced by the body. It also depresses the thyroid, therefore, before beginning treatment for the condition called bipolar disease or bipolar disorder, request the three blood tests for TSH (thyrotropin stimulating hormone), free T4 and free T3 to see if the thyroid is functioning properly.  The T4 and T3 are products of the thyroid.d The TSH tells us if the pituitary gland is responding to the thyroid for more or less stiumlation. The T4 is a product of the thyroid and is the source of T3, the form that is active in the body’s cells. If the thyroid is not functioning properly, the symptoms of bipolar may be a result and the thyroid condition must be corrected before further psychiatric evaluation.

Be sure that the thyroid testing includes the free T3 blood level because it is the active form and is a product of T4. The T4 levels may be within normal limits and still have inadequate T3 for optimal functioning. You can look up the symptoms of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism to see if you are experiencing either of those conditions. It is my opinion that when the thyroid is under-functioning, that periodically the body tries to correct the condition and may overproduce for a time, thus creating the cyclical ups and downs, highs and lows, that look like what is called bipolar disorder. If available, an endocrinologist doctor will be best able to help you, otherwise, ask for an internal medicine doctor.

Other hormone systems can also affect your feelings. Women may inquire of their Ob-Gyn doctor about changes in their hormone levels. Internal medicine specialists can check you for other hormone disturbances that can affect feelings.

You may not have a history of “highs and lows for no reason,” Sometimes anger is part of the highs and you have a specific reason, someone did you wrong, or at least you believe they did. You can explore the situation with “Stepping Out of Vicious Circles” or the Cognitive Worksheet that were given in earlier blogs to see what you can do to alleviate your distress.

You may find no physical reason, including poor nutrition or poor eating patterns, for your anxious feelings. Then you may want to work with a therapist to look for things you have forgotten. Those “forgotten” events and feelings may have had a profound effect on your life.

Or, you may wish to “let sleeping dogs lie” and “stick with the here and now.” If this is the case, you will be content to practice the methods of controlling your feelings that have been already described.

Bipolar condition is diagnosed through a thorough mental health history. The psychiatrist is the kind of doctor who has the best training to diagnose and prescribe for you. The lithium medication must be adjusted for each person’s needs and is affected by salt, sodium, and water intake and losses, such as working conditions that involve heat and sweating. There are newer medications being used at present that have shown some benefits, although, as with most medications, they have “side-effects” that must be evaluated in comparison to the benefits.

Interventions in the Unconscious

When the above measures have not helped and you still feel fearful and anxious or depressed “for no reason,” you may utilize your dreams. You would be wise to find a therapist who understands dream interpretation and with whom you are comfortable for a journey of this kind.

Understanding your dreams will help you discover concerns and feelings that you usually keep in the unconscious parts of your brain. Recurring themes, the same thing happening over and over in your dreams, may indicate unresolved fears or other areas of concern. If you learn to understand the symbolism in your dreams, you will be more aware of your deeper feelings.

It was a recurring dream that caused me to specialize in mental health nursing. In the dream I had applied for work at my alma mater hospital and was told to report to a certain unit. I argued that I preferred surgery and asked to see the supervisor. In another dream I saw her but was told I was needed as assigned. In the following dream I couldn’t find the unit. The unit was hard to find, I felt unsure of myself and didn’t know what to expect. In a later dream, I thought I had found it. When I entered the door, I had to “inch” in, the place was packed with people literally like sardines in a can, everyone was talking. No one was listening.  I discovered there were no attendants of any kind there but me and I was in the middle.  It took several dreams and some deep thinking for me to figure out what now seems obvious, the unit was a mental health unit, the unit needed help and I needed more training.

“Journaling your dreams” is a helpful way of discovering unconscious concerns that may be inhibiting your happiness. As soon as you awaken, write down the dream. Remember to keep pencil and paper by the side of the bed, so you can easily record your dream, since dreams may fade quickly from your memory. Recurring dreams, recurring themes of dreams, and very vivid dreams, whether they are satisfying or disturbing, are particularly of value. After writing down all you can remember of the dream, you may tell it to a friend, therapist, or just mull it over in your own mind.

You may “reconstruct” the dream through imagery and work out a more satisfying dream. By this I mean, as you think over the dream and picture it again in your mind, you may reject part or all of the picture. You may wipe out the part you cannot accept as though you were using an eraser on a blackboard, or flooding a watercolor with water, and re-draw or re-paint a scene that is acceptable, positive, and constructive. Hold the new picture in your mind and feel the new feelings and new resolve that are associated with it. Practice the new scene in your mind and even out loud, either with a friend or alone. You may combine this technique with progressive relaxation exercises as part of the relaxed state.

Reconstructing your dreams or images of uncomfortable or distressing situations can be a tool to assist you initiate new responses to recurring situations. You can change your behavior. Oftentimes, others change their behavior and attitudes in response to your new approach to, or behavior in, the recurring cycle. The cycle can be stopped.

Since your concerns may not be obvious in your dreams, you may wish to use a method developed by a therapist named Fritz Perls. He used a method of dialogue with a therapist (you can try a dialogue with yourself) to discover the deeper meanings. Basically, he asked that you take turns being all the different people and objects in the dream and talk about what that feels like in each case. If you have a friend who will listen to you do this and report back to you what s/he heard and saw, it is helpful. You are not asking for the friend’s “opinion,” but for a report of how you sounded, looked, and what you said.

Other therapists have developed methods of imagery during deep relaxation to achieve the same ends.

A few therapists turn to hypnotism. Personally I am not comfortable with this form of therapy. The client is vulnerable to suggestion from the therapist and the therapist may be on the wrong track with the client unable to say so. I much prefer simply praying–silently or aloud, alone or together, according to the client’s wishes–for God’s guidance and then work together with what comes to consciousness.


In times of severe distress, one’s only help may be to call upon God’s grace and care, commit the situation into God’s hands, clasp your hands and go to sleep, or go on with your work, as the case may be.

The nurse, whom you met earlier, did exactly that when she answered her door and a policeman said her husband had been hit by a car while on his bicycle. The impact had thrown him headfirst into the curb. He was in the emergency room. Shaking and trembling, she immediately called her supervisor whom she was scheduled to drive to an out-of-town meeting. Fortunately, another staff member was available to attend, and the supervisor graciously released her and wished them well.

Not knowing her husband’s condition, not knowing what would be best to pray, but knowing he had left without his helmet, she prayed. Acknowledging she didn’t know what was best, she submitted her husband to God, trusting God to do what was best.

When she arrived at the emergency room, the surgeon was checking his eyes for swelling of the optic nerve, a serious sign of increasing intracranial pressure. At the moment, it appeared O.K., but would need ongoing observation. As the surgeon cleansed the bleeding gash in the eyebrow and cheek he felt bare bone and the grating sensation of sand imbedded in the flesh. Her husband was talking, but didn’t remember anything. He was just beginning to understand that he had been in an accident and needed care. He wanted to know exactly what had happened. He didn’t recall for sure what he was supposed to do that morning. They called his office to cancel his appointments for the rest of the week. Gradually, he was re-oriented to time, place, and situation. He wanted to go home. With the surgeon’s reluctant permission, after sutures and another eye check, they left the hospital for home.

Many times I have been in the surgical suite as the patient prayed aloud, calling on God or Jesus to “hold my hand,” and a nurse, physician, or other attendant had clasped the person’s hand firmly and reassuringly. The peace that floods the patient’s face is truly rewarding to the one who served as “God’s hand” or “God’s angel” at that moment.

God acts through our praying and our caring. Prayer is powerful. We know too little about it. Be careful what you pray. God knows more than we do about any situation; “God’s will” may be our best prayer.


One response to “Habits for Stress Relief

  1. Pingback: Can we make happy stem cells? | Here's to Your Health!·

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