Stress Management, Stress Relief and the Happiness Connection

Check out the exercises below and build your own evidence-based stress relief program.
My research got me really excited about the connection between stress management and happiness.  As you may have noticed, I am a bit of a nerd about evidence-based anything and especially stress management, stress reduction, stress relief, stress busting, relaxation, relaxation exercises, high blood pressure, executive burnout, professional distress; helping professionals, such as nurses, doctors, social workers, and therapists; teachers, paraprofessionals, principals, professors; overwhelmed mothers, stay at home fathers, those who are hopeless at the holidays, and suicide prevention.
The major theme that emerged is thatthe same exercises recommended to manage stress are included in the literature on happiness.  Does it make you ask, “What is the connection between stress and happiness?”
Wonder of wonders: when you feel like your stress is manageable, you get happier.  (Just so you know, I am in awe of the connection, honest.  I am a very enthusiastic person.  Sometimes it sounds sarcastic in writing when I don’t mean it that way.)  This stress management blog follows the link between stress reduction and increasing happiness.
There are any number of stress busting exercises out there.  Of course, they don’t work if you don’t do them.  And there’s the problem.  Sadly, Stanford University School of Medicine research shows thatmost people don’t do stress management exercises unless they spend at least three minutes going through them together with a practitioner.  That practitioner is me, and the purpose of this blog is for you to practice at least four stress relief exercises each week.
For the first week I recommend you focus on the four evidence-based exercises below:
1.  Belly Breathing
2.  Guided Relaxation
3.  Give Thanks / Gratitude
4.  Appreciate Your Self
They come from the Stanford Prevention Research Center and Fred Luskin’s book,Stress Free for Good, HarperCollins, 2005.  In class we use a blood pressure cuff (provided) to measure your pre- and post-exercise blood pressure and pulse.  Feel free to buy one to use at home.  They are available in most drug stores.  If you are into evidence, like I am, a blood pressure cuff is the most accessible tool to measure decreased stress.  Pulse is easy to measure with any timepiece.  Unfortunately, pulse alone is not a good indicator of reduced stress.  However, on the positive side, you can still accumulate evidence without instruments.  More than any scientific measuring device, you are an expert on yourself.  All you have to do is record the date and rate your pre- and post-stress-relief exercise level of stress/relaxation on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 100.
If you get yourself organized with chart and blood pressure cuff at the ready and clear your schedule for 15 to 20 minutes, you can get through all four exercises below in one session.  If not, I highly recommend doing each one briefly any time you get a chance.  Instructions are below.
Date:
Exercise
Time**
Pre–Stress / Relax Rating
Pre BP
Post-Stress/ Relax Rating
Post BP
1.  Belly Breathing
2.  Guided Relaxation
3.  Give Thanks / Gratitude
4.  Appreciate Your Self
** It’s important to record the time, because blood pressure varies over the course of the day.
  1. Belly Breathing, 3 minutes
    1. Take and record pre-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
    2. Breathe air in slowly so your belly goes up and down for 3 minutes (but don’t hyperventilate!).  It might help to rest your hands gently on your belly so you can feel them lift as your breathe and fall as you breathe out.  Some sources recommend holding the breath for a count of three after breathing in and after breathing out.
    3. Record your post-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
  2. Guided Relaxation,  3 minutes
    1. Take and record pre-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
    2. Mentally talk yourself through physical relaxation from toe to crown of head.  Feel free to concentrate more on any area of your body that needs it.  Breathe whenever you want throughout.  Here’s an example.  If you use the following script, read it slowly and stretch it out over 3 minutes:
Breathe in and relax your toes… Wiggle them just a little bit and relax…  Let that go and breathe in and relax your ankles…  Now let that go and then breathe in deeply and relax your calves…  Let that go…  Breathe in and relax your knees.  Now let that go…and breathe in and relax your thighs…  Let that go…  Breathe in and relax your whole hip area, front and back…  Notice how you’re sitting and how that feels…  Shift your body if you need to, so you’re more relaxed… Breathe in and relax your stomach…  Let that go…  Now breathe in and relax your back muscles…    Really feel the breath expand through your belly and into your back muscles…  Now roll your shoulders a bit then breathe in and let them rise and fall with your breath…  Great.  Let that go and breathe in and focus on your upper arms…  Ok, breathe out slowly then breathe back in slowly and relax your forearms…  Now let that go and breathe in and relax your hands…  Wiggle your fingers ever so slightly…  Breathe in again and relax again.  Going back up your arms, breathe in and out slowly.  We’re getting to the neck, where people hold a lot of tension…  Breathe in and pay attention to how your neck feels.  Do this several times…  Using very small movements, gently move your head in a circle, and relax…  Now let that go and feel the muscles in your face…  Breathe in and relax…  Smile just a tiny bit with your mouth and breathe in slowly…  Relax and breathe out slowly…
    1. Record your post-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
  1. Giving thanks / Gratitude, 3 minutes
    1. Take and record pre-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
    2. Spend 3 minutes (or any period of time) thinking about all the things you are grateful for, and all the things you appreciate in life.  What are you grateful for?  Think of the categories do, be, have.  I am grateful that I can do ____________, that I have __________, that I am ______________.  Who are you grateful for?  Family, friends, heroes, people who have been kind, leaders, people who love you.  One of my favorite stories is about a mother who counted all her chickens, literally.  She had chicken for dinner every week when she could afford it.  She happily counted all the times she had chicken for dinner.  She reviewed her life, where she lived, the family gathered for the meal, and her life events by reviewing week after week, chicken by chicken.  (Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen, 1996, Penguin Putnam.)
    3. Record your post-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
  2. Appreciate all that you do and all that you are, 3 minutes
    1. Take and record pre-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
    2. Spend 3 minutes appreciating “the things that you do that are loving or helpful.”  Give yourself credit for all the times you’ve really tried, what you have tried to accomplish, even if you didn’t succeed, and your successes.  Keep Thomas Edison in mind.  He spent years developing the light bulb.  Someone else beat him to the patent, so he formed a joint venture, EdiSwan, with the other guy.  Even more important for beating stress, don’t focus on accomplishment, as much as positive qualities.  Reflect on the positive aspects of your character, who you are, the effort you make in your life, what you’re good at, and what makes you happy.
    3. Record your post-exercise blood pressure and pulse, and a 1-10 or 1-100 stressed/relaxed rating.
Date:
Exercise
Time**
Pre- Stress / Relax Rating
Pre BP
Post- Stress / Relax Rating
Post BP
1.  Belly Breathing
2.  Guided Relaxation
3.  Giving Thanks / Gratitude
4.  Appreciating Your Self
** It’s important to record the time, because blood pressure varies over the course of the day.
Chart notes:
  • Blood pressure is lowest during sleep, rises during the day, peaks in the afternoon or early evening, and then starts going back down.
  • The change between pre- and post-exercise blood pressure is the closest approximation of relaxation because blood pressure changes throughout the day.
  • If you’re into pure science, it is more reliable if take your blood pressure three times, one minute apart, both before and after the stress-busting exercise and  then take an average of the three readings.
  • A 1-10 rating has no exact middle.   It forces you to choose 1-5 or 6-10 whether you’re more relaxed or more stressed.  The middle of a 0-10 rating is 5.
  • 0 or 1 is the most relaxed possible and 10 or 100 is maximum stress, for uniformity.  That way we can discuss levels of stress and relaxation and our numbers will mean the same thing.
Listen, about suicide, I don’t mean to be depressing.  If you feel suicidal, I am concerned about you.  In the US, please call 800-273-8255.  It’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  Your call will be routed to the nearest call center as soon as possible.  You will be on hold a bit, but please wait.  They will be glad you called.
If you’re feeling down or depressed, these exercises might help a little bit.  You might be pleased to hear that40% of your happiness is under your control.  With a lot of grit, you can actively choose to be happy.  If you’re consistent, and use your willpower, you can permanently change how happy your feel.
No one who knows about depression expects you to be able to put on a happy face if you are seriously depressed or having a depressive episode.  Your neurochemicals, those chemicals and hormones that run your mood in your brain, are overpowering.  Please, get help from a professional therapist or psychiatrist to get you over the hurdle of the worst of it.
If you’re moderately in control of your mood and you’re looking for something to pick you up, here are a couple more suggestions, over and above the stress-relief exercises:  Get in touch with friends.  Talk with family.  Reach out to co-workers.  The caveat:  Choose to connect with those who would respond with kindness.  Another happiness maker is to volunteer your time to those who need it.  Call 211 to find a place to volunteer.
To help prevent suicide, check this out:  Did you know that male teens, young men, dentists, veterans, emergency response personnel (EMTs, fire fighters and police), doctors, and guards are at greater risk for suicide?  Please express your appreciation to them.  Give them a boost at this time of year and later in the spring, when suicide is highest, ok?  You may save a life.
With regard to the Happiness Connection, there’s an evidence-based book calledThe How of Happinessby Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin Press, 2007.  It describes twelve happiness activities and guides you through selecting a few that are easiest to integrate into your life and most likely that you will continue to do them over time.  The happiness enhancing activities Lyuobomirsky suggests are very similar to activities that reduce stress!

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