Stress can get the best of anyone. The key to successful coping is to discover the strategy that works best for you.
Your stomach gets tied in knots each time you wonder if you’ve timed it right to conceive this month, or your heart is pounding as you sit in traffic and contemplate the presentation you’re about to give at work. If only you could relax (and regulate your body temperature), everything would be fine. You close your eyes and try to picture yourself at the beach house you rented last summer. No luck. You don’t “see” anything and actually find yourself even more tense.
“Relaxation is very individual,” says Jon Seskevich, a stress- and pain-management educator at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. In fact, many of us fall into one of four basic stress types.
Type 1: The Monitor
The Monitor’s M.O. is control. You like to live in the present at all times and ask a lot of questions during stressful situations. Despite having an active imagination, you find it nearly impossible to mentally get away from the source of stress.
You Know You’re One If . . . In the OB-GYN’s office, you keep your eyes open and stay focused on what’s going on around you. You tend to inquire about every little poke and prod. (“Um…now what are you doing?”)
If asked to imagine yourself walking through a peaceful forest, you either get a blank screen or can’t focus on the image for more than a few seconds.
You’re filled with what-ifs when under stress. What if you get in a car accident over the weekend and miss your Monday deadline? What if your toddler hates his new babysitter? “The Monitor’s mind can be her worst enemy when it comes to relaxing,” says Dr. Patricia McWhorter, PhD, a clinical psychologist in St. Petersburg, Florida.
For general stress relief, Dr. McWhorter suggests you “connect with nature. Go for a leisurely walk or stroll with your kids in the park or sit by a river and watch the sunset.” If you don’t already, try attending religious services every so often. “You will probably be comforted by the hymns or simply the feeling of connection with others,” says Dr. Jenkins.
Stress Rx: Physical relaxation techniques such as belly breathing (breathing from the depths of your diaphragm) work best. During stressful situations, like at work minutes before you’re going to give a big presentation, monitor your breathing by placing your hand on your abdomen and watching it rise and fall in sync with each breath. Belly breathing distracts you from the event at hand. It also helps counteract the quick, shallow chest breathing associated with stress. As a result, it lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and sustains the amount of oxygen in your blood—all of which help short-circuit the release of fight-or-flight hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), noradrenaline, and cortisol throughout the body, says Seskevich.
Monitors also benefit by fulfilling their need for information and control. If you or your child is diagnosed with a medical condition, for example, calm yourself by reading up on it. Have to give a presentation at the office? Practice, practice, practice.
Type 2: The Distracter
If you’re a distracter, you would rather stick your head in the sand and not know the details. You find it easy to mentally escape.
You Know You’re One If . . . During a medical procedure, you maintain a let-me-know-when-it’s-over mindset. “You’re inclined to say, ‘Just give me the big picture,’ or “Don’t tell me,'” says Dr. Carol Goldberg, PhD, a New York-based clinical psychologist and president of Getting Ahead Programs, which specializes in stress-management and wellness workshops.
During a choppy airplane ride, you find it easy to sleep or escape into a good book. You also want to be spared the pilot’s play-by-play on the PA system.
When your boss drops yet another last-minute project on your desk and you’re already late to get home and make dinner, you take a quick mental time-out and imagine yourself sipping margaritas on the veranda at sunset. Ahh….
StressRx: If this sounds like you, milk your talents for creative visualization. Imagine yourself somewhere better during trying times—but don’t focus on just any mental image. “Try different scenarios and pick one you truly find relaxing,” says Seskevich. Keep engaging reading material and your favorite movies on hand for instant escapism.
“Focus on an interesting object in the room or a complex and meaningful thought, something that gets your mind involved,” suggests Dr. C. David Jenkins, PhD, adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Turn to music. Concentrate on the lyrics, or remember a time or a place associated with the song or artist. For stress relief on the run, tote your iPod or a handheld CD player stocked with tunes that soothe you.
Type 3: The Spiritually Inclined
You feel a reverent connection to the universe. Whether or not you participate in any organized religion, you believe that there is a higher power that gives you direction in your life and protects you.
You Know You’re One If . . . Repeating a prayer or a spiritual mantra during anxious times calms and comforts you.
You feel a deep sense of the sacredness of all things, like the splendor of a spring day or the divinity of a sunset.
You wouldn’t hurt a fly. Literally.
StressRx: Repeating a short spiritual concentration phrase such as “the Lord is my shepherd,” or “God is with me” is probably your best antidote for stress. (Secular mantras such as “be calm,” or “relaxed mind, calm body” do nothing for you.) But again, be picky. “Choose a phrase that resonates with you,” says Seskevich.
Other Options: Listening to spiritually themed yoga and meditation tapes that use outdoor imagery, or carrying something with you that evokes a feeling of solace and protection, such as the rosary or even a photo of a nature scene. But don’t try to force it, cautions Dr. McWhorter. “Spirituality is highly individual. You need to find something simple that connects you.” Repeat your mantra to yourself a few times or pull out the photo and look at it just as your stress level begins to build—say, when your boss calls you on the carpet or the basement floods.
Type 4: The Fidgeter
The Fidgeter needs to do some form of exercise to find even marginal stress relief. “Physically passive relaxation techniques, such as creative visualization and meditation, often don’t work,” says Dr. Jason Kornrich, PhD, a psychologist at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, New York.
You Know You’re One If . . . You’ve got energy to burn. The very thought of sitting still through a manicure drives you batty.
You feel destressed after exercise—even though during your workout, your mind wanders…to the memo you didn’t write, what to buy your mother-in-law for her birthday, whether the cat is due for shots.
You’re a master at multitasking—you put on your makeup while getting breakfast for your toddler while talking on your cell phone and sipping your coffee.
Stress Rx: Fidgeters need to engage body and mind for a deep sense of mental and physical relaxation. Your best bet: a walking meditation, where you concentrate on feeling your feet touch the ground with each step and silently repeat a soothing phrase such as “easy does it.” This exercise, says Seskevich says, helps you “focus your mind in the present moment.” Otherwise, you’re apt to walk and worry and deprive yourself of that much-needed mental break.
Exercise in general is also beneficial—but it’s important to choose an activity that demands your undivided attention. Sign up for a team sport or a dance classes with elaborate drills. Terrain-challenging mountain biking also works well.
For stressful moments when exercise is definitely not an option, “try progressive muscle relaxation,” suggests Dr. John Harvey, PhD, author of Total Relaxation. To do this, simply tighten or contract the muscles in one area of your body and hold for five or more seconds. Then release the muscles and move on to the next area.
Do deep diaphragmatic breathing: Though ideal for Monitors, oxygenated belly breaths can also be a stress saver for Distracters, the Spiritually Inclined, and Fidgeters. “When you’re taking long, deep breaths, you interrupt the physiological response of anxiety, which is to breathe shallowly,” says Dr. Douglas A. Jones, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.
Seek support: When you’re lying in bed or trying to relax—say in the waiting room at the infertility specialist’s office—”your shoulders can still be hunched, your fists clenched,” says Seskevich. This can sabotage your relaxation efforts. To relax those muscles, let the bed or chair support your weight by tell yourself to “feel the bed” (or the chair) beneath you, says Seskevich. You’ll be surprised by how good this paradigm shift feels.
Get fit: Even if you’re not a Fidgeter, there’s no better way to burn off steam (not to mention calories!) than a workout. In fact, exercise can also physiologically prepare you for a more passive relaxation technique, such as creative visualization or meditating while using a calming mantra. “Plus, it releases those nice calming endorphins,” says Dr. Whorter.