Relaxation and Stress Management
By Jodi K. Caldwell, Ph.D.
Stress is something that we commonly talk about in our society. However, we rarely take time to define Stress. What is Stress? What causes Stress? How do we experience stress? Most importantly, what can we do to manage our stress? Stress is a fairly universal experience for all of us. Regardless of how our personalities vary in terms of intensity, at one time or another, we will all be confronted with a situation that we find stressful.
STRESS is the result of our need to adapt to change. The sources of change, stressors, can come from one of four basic areas:
- Environmental stressors (e.g., weather, pollution, noise)
- Social stressors (e.g., job interviews, examinations, daily responsibilities, family demands)
- Physiological Stressors (e.g., illness, menopause, injuries, poor nutrition, sleep disturbances)
- Cognitive Stressors, i.e. your thoughts. (e.g., need to be “perfect”, interpretation of others’ reactions)
While stress is often discussed in terms of negative impact, it can be beneficial. A healthy level of stress is necessary for optimal performance. However, it is when stress interferes with our functioning, rather than optimizing our functioning, that we begin to experience harmful effects. Consider the example of having a project deadline at work. This is a social stressor that necessitates adaptation. The resulting level of stress can be beneficial: it may cause an end to procrastination, faster work, a sense of accomplishment, etc. However, if adaptation is resisted then the stress can harmful: leading to feelings of helplessness, failure experiences, etc.
How to Handle Stress
The first step to handling stress is to recognize how vulnerable you are to stressful reactions. The second step is to determine how you experience stress. Stress can be experienced in 4 ways:
- Physical symptoms: headaches, stomachaches, sleep problems, hypertension, etc.
- Emotional symptoms: fear, anxiety, tension, anger, irritation, etc.
- Behavioral symptoms: withdrawing from others, increased irritation with others, etc.
- Cognitive symptoms: irrational thoughts such as “I can’t do anything right”, “I’m a loser”, etc.
The third step is to devise a healthy strategy to manage your stress. There are several resources you can access: Self-help books, websites, your own imagination, a counselor or psychologist, etc. The following are just a few suggestions for healthy ways of managing your stress. There is also a list of unhealthy ways people often use to unsuccessfully manage their stress. How many of the unhealthy ways have you used? What healthy stress management tools can you begin to substitute for your unhealthy behaviors?
- Proper Nutrition
- Time Management
- Clear Communication
- Relaxation Techniques:
- Deep Breathing
- Taking a hot bath
- Reading a good book
- Listening to relaxing music
- Overeating/under eating
- Becoming Irritable with others
- Withdrawing from others
- Escape Techniques:
- Recklessness (driving, etc)
The possibilities are endless! Be creative. If you would like more information on how to effectively handle stress, please call the Counseling Center at (912) 478-5541 (Statesboro) or (912) 344-2529(Armstrong).
Davis, M, Eshelman, E. R., & McKay, M. (1995). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc
Books & Internet Resources
- Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (Eshelman & McKay)
- Managing Stress (The University of Texas at Austin
- Stress: “The Doctor Told Me That My Stress Caused My…” (Kansas State University)
Online Relaxation Resources & Audio
Online Relaxation Exercises
The ability to relax is important in effectively managing stress and anxiety. When we feel stressed, our bodies react with what is called the “fight or flight” response. Our muscles become tense, our heart and respiration rates increase, and other physiological systems become taxed. Without the ability to relax, chronic stress or anxiety can lead to burnout, anger, irritability, depression, medical problems, and more.
Allowing yourself to deeply relax is the exact opposite of the “fight or flight” response. In 1975, Herbert Benson described what he referred to as the “relaxation response.” This is the body’s ability to experience a decrease in heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and oxygen consumption.
How Relaxation Exercises Can Help
There are many benefits to being able to induce the “relaxation response” in your own body. Some benefits include a reduction of generalized anxiety, prevention of cumulative stress, increased energy, improved concentration, reduction of some physical problems, and increased self-confidence (Bourne, 2000).
Relaxation exercises can be a powerful weapon against stress. The following are some important facts about stress:
- 43% of adults experienced adverse health effects from stress
- 75-90% of visits to a physician’s office are for stress-related conditions and complaints
- Stress has been linked to the 6 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared stress a hazard of the workplace
- In the workplace, stress may be related to lost hours due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and worker’s compensation benefits. This costs the American industry more than $300 billion annually
Source: Miller, Smith & Rothstein, 1994
It’s a Skill!
Utilizing a relaxation exercise to help reduce stress or anxiety is like learning to ride a bicycle for the first time. It is a skill that takes time and practice to do it effectively! We cannot expect to develop a relaxation skill after trying it one or two times, just as we cannot ride a bike well when we first try. Relaxation exercises can seem deceptively simple at first, but using them well when stress is high requires practice.
Getting the Most Out of the Online Relaxation Exercises
For each of the relaxation exercises below, it is recommended that you find a nice, quiet place where you know you will not be disturbed for the duration of the exercise.
Find a comfortable chair that will allow you to sit up straight using good posture (see photo). How you sit in your chair is important for maximum benefit. Push the small of your back to the rear of the chair and sit upright. This will allow you to take long smooth breaths, and your lungs to fully expand with oxygen. Do not cross your arms or legs, but sit with your legs at a ninety degree angle. Rest your arms comfortably in your lap without using armrests. If you use armrests, this might lead to muscle tension in your shoulders, neck and back.
Many people prefer to close their eyes during these relaxation exercises. If you do not wish to close your eyes, you might find a fixed point in the room and let your gaze fall upon it. Discontinue the exercise if you experience physical or emotional discomfort.
You might try each of the relaxation exercises offered on this page. Many people find that they prefer one or two more than the others. When you find which one/s you like, it is recommended that you practice them every day so you can build the skill and make the exercise more effective for you. We suggest that you start with the “Diaphragmatic Breathing” as this is an important introduction to the other exercises.
The MP3 versions are available for download or streaming, and are free for personal use. However, if you would like to utilize these files for professional use, please contact the Counseling Center at (912) 478-5541 for more information.
Depending on the program that you use to play MP3 files, you may need to click on the link and then choose “download” or each file may play automatically upon clicking its link.
The scripts for each of these exercises are available as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.
It is recommended that you begin with this relaxation exercise. In this introduction, you’ll learn how to make relaxation exercises work effectively for you. Skills for proper breathing tecnhiques are demonstrated. Presented by Dr. Allan Vives. Length: 9:13.
Deep Breathing: I
Enjoy being guided step-by-step through deep breathing exercises that will give your lungs a pleasant, soothing workout. Learn to pace your breathing for maximum effect. Presented by Dr. Jodi Caldwell. Length: 6:43.
Deep Breathing I Script (PDF)
Deep Breathing: II
In this meditative exercise you will learn to focus on your breathing and allow intrustive thoughts to melt away. This skill is good for taking a break during a busy day. Presented by Dr. Prentiss Price. Length: 7:28.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Learn to recognize when and where you hold tension in your body and how to effectively release it, allowing yourself to fully relax. Presented by Dr. Tobin Lovell. Length: 8:39.
Guided Imagery: The Beach
Take a mini-vacation as you are guided through the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of a pleasant walk along the beach. The “best” version of this audio file has sounds of the ocean in the background. Presented by Dr. Prentiss Price. Length: 6:06.
Guided Imagery: The Forest
Let yourself be guided on a peaceful walk through a beautiful, lush forest near a trickling stream. The “best” version of this audio file has sounds of the forest in the background. Presented by Dr. Chuck Zanone. Length: 7:07.
Sometimes it is helpful to repeat certain phrases to yourself in order to deepen your state of relaxation. A series of phrases are presented by Dr. Wendy Wolfe. Length: 6:14.
Introduction: Much of the emotional distress people experience is the result of thinking about upsetting things that have already happened or anticipating negative events that have yet to occur. Distressing emotions such as anger, anxiety, guilt, and sadness are much easier to bear if you only focus on the present – on each moment one at a time. These are exercises to increase your mindfulness of the present moment so that you can clear away thoughts about past and future events. These meditations are presented by Dr. Wendy Wolfe.
Adapted from: Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. NY: The Guilford Press.
Benson, H. The Relaxation Response. New York, NY: Morrow, 1975.
Bourne, E. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 3rd. Edition. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2000.
Miller, L., and Smith, A. D., Rothstein, L. The Stress Solution: An Action Plan to Manage the Stress in Your Life. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1994.
Last updated: 7/17/2019