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How Your Holiday Season Can Be More Relaxed
As we head toward the holiday season, it's a good time to take stock - am I managing my stress well? Am I managing my stress at all?! Not too many years ago, I noticed that clients would sometimes complain of poor sleep, headaches, asthma, indigestion and sometimes even heightened blood pressure brought on by the demands of family, intimate relationships, and unrealized hopes at this time of year. Sometimes people respond by worrying about these stressors without finding resolution.
Yet when we are too stressed, we get anxious, fatigued, do not focus well, lose sleep, lose confidence, and even get disconnected from our feelings. I like to remind myself and the people I work with to take an active stance and do more to relax when stress increases - calm is not a luxury! The temptation to drop everything when life gets hectic is understandable. On the other hand, how well will we cope with all the demands and dynamics of this time of year if we're unfocused, low energy, discouraged, or overwhelmed?
We all have times when we find it harder or easier to bounce back from life’s setbacks. Resilience is the process of adapting well and bouncing back from difficult experiences. So how can we who are going through a stressful time develop resilience? The science of biopsychosocial wellbeing offers some useful tips:
- Relaxation training: When psychologists talk about “learning to relax” this refers to regular practice of one or more specific techniques and exercises (see links below for downloadable recordings). This is more than seeing a movie to take your mind off things or taking a long walk to unwind, helpful as those are.
- This practice combines breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualization techniques that are proven to release muscular and emotional tension your body stores up during stress.
- Racing thoughts and feelings of fear and anxiety ease when your body is completely relaxed.
- Heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure, skeletal muscle tension, metabolic rate, oxygen consumption and skin electrical conductivity all decrease during the “relaxation response”
- Visualization: Imagery is one of the most basic ways in which our minds store and represent information – it’s the “language of the unconscious mind.” Before we even learn to speak, we can “think” in terms of images (e.g. dreams)
- Visualization is a method that uses imagery to alter behavior, mood, and physiological state
- For example, imagery is used to improve athletic performance and improve immune function in the treatment of disease
- It can help you break out of states of worry and stress within 20 minutes with regular practice
- Relationships: Studies indicate the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models, and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person's resilience. Let your supportive friends and family help; choose wisely who you share your struggles and feelings with. Ask yourself - What attitudes, actions, self-care can help me foster resilience? (see the APA article listed below for more information)
The key to immersion is relaxation – progressive muscle relaxation or meditation set the stage for visualization. You can tell you’re immersed if the colors, shapes and textures in your visualized scene are vivid and detailed. Efficacy improves with practice – try to use relaxation and/or visualization at the same time each day and on an empty stomach. In summary: practice relaxation, visualization, and cultivate your supportive relationships.
By taking an active stance to inoculate against the stress of the holiday season, you may feel more empowered and effective at being the kind of person you want to be, regardless of how ideal outside circumstances are. Please chime in below this post with comments or suggestions on making the holidays happier.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation and breathing exercises - http://www.hws.edu/studentlife/counseling_relax.aspx (start with the first link, Progressive Relaxation Exercise, and go to the 2nd when muscle relaxation comes naturally).
- Guided imagery to create your peaceful scene: http://media.dartmouth.edu/~healthed/special_place.mp3
- American Psychological Association (2010) The Road to Resilience http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx .
- Naparsteck, Belleruth. Guided imagery recordings available at https://members.kaiserpermanente.org/redirects/listen/ (especially Stress, Relaxation and Wellness, and Panic Attacks and Anxiety).
- For grounding and visualization: Breath Awareness, Body Scan, or Mountain Meditation from http://www.mindfulness-solution.com/DownloadMeditations.html.
© Copyright 2014 by Melinda Douglass, therapist in San Francisco, California. All rights reserved.