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Stress Reduction

Chapter 17: Stress Reduction

Tools for Personal Growth

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What are sources of stress?

There are four categories of sources of stress:

1. Change of any kind can induce stress because of:
  • fear of the new, the unknown
  • feelings of personal insecurity
  • feelings of vulnerability
  • fear of rejection
  • need for approval
  • lack of tolerance for ambiguity
  • fear of conflict
  • fear of taking a risk
  • fear of developing trust
  • fear of inability to cope with changed circumstances
2. Individual personality characteristics that can induce stress include:
  • low self-esteem
  • feelings of over-responsibility
  • fear of loss of control
  • fear of failure, error, mistakes
  • fear of being judged
  • lack of belief in “being good enough”
  • chronic striving to be perfect
  • chronic guilt
  • unresolved grief over a loss or a series of losses
  • chronic anger, hostility, or depression
3. Interpersonal issues that can induce stress include:
  • a lack of adequate support within the relationship
  • a lack of healthy communication within the relationship
  • a sense of competitiveness between the parties involved
  • threats of rejection or disapproval between people
  • an inability to be appropriately assertive
  • struggle for power and control in the relationship
  • poor intimacy or sexuality within the relationship
  • chronic conflict and disagreement with no healthy resolution
  • over-dependency of one party on another
  • a troubled person who refuses to recognize the need for help
4. System (family, job, school, club, organization) issues that can induce stress include:
  • lack of leadership
  • lack of sense of direction
  • uncooperative atmosphere
  • competitive atmosphere
  • autocratic leadership
  • unclear expectations
  • a chronic sense of impending doom
  • a lack of teamwork
  • confused communications
  • developmental disability or chronic ill health of one or more members.


Is all stress bad?

Not all stress is distress:

  • a certain amount of stress or pressure is necessary and shows a positive adaptation being made by a person. This is called eustress.
  • Bad or negative stress is called distress: the negative physiological and emotional response when stress is intense and unresolved.


There are three degrees of stress:

  1. Low: This is distress leading to boredom, fatigue, frustration, or dissatisfaction.
  2. Optimum: This is eustress leading to creativity, problem solving, progress, change, learning, and energetic satisfaction.
  3. High: This is distress leading to exhaustion, illness, lack of concentration, excessive mood swings, low self-esteem, and irrational problem solving.


What is a definition of stress?

  • Stress is defined as a person's response to his environment. Stress is measured in terms of arousal or stimulation. As such, stress must be present for a person to function.
  • Each person has his own normal (homeostatic) level of arousal at which he functions best. If something unusual in the environment occurs, this level of arousal is affected.


There are three phases of arousal:

  1. Phase 1 Alarm phase: When an unusual (or stressful) event occurs, the output of energy drops for a short period as the event is registered in the person's mind.
  2. Phase 2 Adaptation phase: Next, the output of energy increases above the normal level; arousal is heightened as the person seeks to deal with the situation. Adaptation responses available to humans include physically running away, fighting, freezing (self-immobilization), suppression emotion, or learning.
  3. Phase 3 Exhaustion phase: Finally the person's available energy is expended and his capacity to function effectively is reduced.

What is the stress/relaxation physical response cycle?

The physical response to stress is as follows:

The signs of this physical response include:


  • heart rate
  • blood pressure, respiration
  • perspiration
  • pupil dilation
  • muscle tension


What are the results of chronic stress?

In the state of chronic stress

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • respiration are chronically elevated

Common stress-related illnesses include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Mental illness

A diagram of the stress cycle:

What is the Relaxation Response?

The signs of this physical response include:


heart rate

blood pressure


pupil dilation

muscle tension

Stress-management strategy is to evoke the relaxation physical response on a regular, daily basis.


The physical response to relaxation is as follows:

Personal life events analysis:To learn the level of stress (distress) in your life, mark down in your journal the value at the right of each of the following events if it has occurred within the past 12 months:


        Event (Value)
  • Death of spouse (100)
  • Divorce (73)
  • Marital separation (65)
  • Jail term (63)
  • Death of close family member (63)
  • Personal injury or illness (53)
  • Marriage (50)
  • Fired from job (47)
  • Marital reconciliation (45)
  • Retirement (45)
  • Change in family member's health (44)
  • Pregnancy (40)
  • Sexual difficulties (39)
  • Addition to family (39)
  • Business readjustment (39)
  • Change in financial status (38)
  • Death of close friend (37)
  • Career change (36)
  • Change in number of marital arguments (35)
  • Mortgage or loan over $10,000 (31)
  • Foreclosure of mortgage or loan (30)
  • Change in work responsibilities (29)
  • Son or daughter leaving home (29)
  • Trouble with in-laws (29)
  • Outstanding personal achievement (28)
  • Spouse begins or ceases working (26)
  • Starting or finishing school (26)
  • Change in living conditions (25)
  • Revision of personal habits (24)
  • Trouble with boss (23)
  • Change in work hours, conditions (20)
  • Change in residence (20)
  • Change in schools (20)
  • Change in recreational habits (19)
  • Change in church activities (19)
  • Change in social activities (18)
  • Mortgage or loan under $10,000 (17)
  • Change in sleeping habits (16)
  • Change in number of family gatherings (15)
  • Change in eating habits (15)
  • Vacation (13)
  • Christmas season (12)
  • Minor violation of the law (11)


How to analyze your score:

Add the values of all the items you identified with. If your total score is more than 150, find ways to reduce stress in your daily life so that your stress level doesn't increase. The higher the score, the harder one needs to work at staying physically well.

Suggested uses for personal life-events analysis:

  • Become familiar with the different events and the amounts of stress they promote.
  • Put the list of events where your family can easily refer to it several times a day.
  • Practice recognizing the stress level when one of these events happens.
  • Think about the meaning of the event for you and identify your feelings.
  • Think about the different ways you can adjust to the event.
  • Take your time in arriving at decisions.
  • Anticipate life changes and plan for them well in advance whenever possible.
  • Pace yourself. It can be done even if you are in a hurry.
  • Look at the accomplishment of a task as a part of ongoing daily living; avoid looking at such an achievement as a stopping point. Congratulate yourself and push ahead.
  • Recognize that your internal mechanism of coping with stress is directly tied to how your health and well-being will be influenced by it.
What is personal progressive relaxation?


Progressive relaxation consists of:

1. Learning to relax:
You may have grown to accept a certain high level of stress and anxiety as normal. You may be unfamiliar with what it feels like to be relaxed, calm, and unstressed. With progressive relaxation you learn what it feels like to be relaxed, you learn to increase relaxation to a new level. By doing this you not only improve your physical well being by reducing hypertension, headaches, and other physical complaints, but you improve your mental state by reducing stress, anxiety, irritability, and depression.


2. The physical setting:
Progressive relaxation should take place in a quiet, attractive room. You should be completely supported. There should be no need for exertion to maintain body support. You should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing during the sessions.


3. The process:
Lie on the floor or a bed and follow the directions of the relaxation technique (contained latter in this chapter) as you tense and relax various muscle groups. After the initial tensing of the muscles, release the tension instantly and completely. This is very important in order to get the pendulum effect. The muscles relax beyond the point of their normal relaxed state. You should then feel the important difference between tension and relaxation. You should concentrate on the feeling of relaxation, learn what it is to relax and how to increase it. Continually repeat to yourself, “Know what it feels like to be relaxed, deepen the relaxation, know what it is to be relaxed.”
Do's and don'ts of relaxation:
Do:  Make sure you have comfortable, loose clothing and proper back support
Don't: Put yourself in an awkward position or in a position that will make it easy to fall asleep


Do: Allow your mind to quiet down. If tense thoughts enter while you are relaxing, let them pass out of your head.
Don't: Think your way into tension. If you can't clear your mind, take a long, deep breath and let it out slowly.


Do: Stay alert and conscious while you are relaxing. Pay close attention and note any changes in your body (feelings that stand out for you).
Don't: Allow yourself to become groggy and sleepy. If you start falling asleep, open your eyes and sit up. When you are ready, return to relaxation posture.


Do: Go at your own pace and let go of your muscles as your body decides to give up tension.
Don't: Expect yourself to relax all at one. Like any other physical exercise, you must practice letting go step by step.


Do: Give your body messages of appreciation for relaxing as you notice these feelings going through your body.
Don't: Get down on yourself for not relaxing. Your body should be trusted to go at its own pace.


Do: Stay award of your breathing. Observe how much air you're taking in full breaths at regular rhythms.

Don't: Smoke before, during or after relaxation as it tightens lung tissue and blood vessels. Let your body breathe.

Relaxation training technique

Record these directions for yourself by reading them slowly. Use the tape daily to practice the relaxation response:


Settle back as comfortably as you can and close your eyes. Let your self relax to the best of your ability. Now, as you relax like that, clench your right fist. Just clench your fist tighter and tighter and study the tension as you do so. Keep it clenched and feel the tension in your right fist, hand, and forearm. Now relax. Let the fingers of your right hand become loose, and observe the contrast in your feelings. Now, let yourself go and try to become more relaxed all over. Once more, clench your right fist really tight - hold it, and notice the tension again. Now let go, relax; your fingers straighten out and you notice the difference once more. Repeat that with your left fist. Clench your left fist while the rest of your body relaxes; clench that fist tighter and feel the tension. Now relax. Again, enjoy the contrast. Repeat that once more. Clench the left fist, tight and tense. Now do the opposite of tension: relax and feel the difference. Continue relaxing like that for a while. Clench both fists tighter and tighter, both fists tense, forearms tense. Study the sensations. Relax; straighten out your fingers and feel the relaxation. Continue relaxing your hands and forearms more and more.


Now bend your elbows and tense your biceps, tense them harder and study the tension feelings. All right. Straighten out your arms, let them relax and feel that difference again. Let the relaxation develop. Once more, tense your biceps; hold the tension and observe it carefully. Straighten the arms and relax; relax to the best of your ability. Each time, pay close attention to your feelings when you tense up and when you relax. Now straighten your arms. Straighten them so that you feel the most tension in the triceps muscles along the backs of your arms; stretch your arms and feel that tension. Now relax. Get your arms back into a comfortable position. Let the relaxation proceed on its own. The arms should feel comfortably heavy as you allow them to relax. Straighten the arms once more so that you feel the tension in the triceps muscles; straighten them. Feel that tension  - relax. Now concentrate on pure relaxation in the arms without any tension. Get your arms comfortable and let them relax further and further. Continue relaxing your arms even further. Even when your arms seem fully relaxed, try to go that extra bit further; try to achieve deeper and deeper levels of relaxation.


Let all your muscles go loose and heavy. Just settle back quietly and comfortably. Wrinkle up your forehead now; wrinkle it tighter. Now, stop wrinkling your forehead; relax and smooth it out. Picture the entire forehead and scalp becoming smoother as the relaxation increased. Now, frown and crease your brows and study the tension. Let go of the tension again. Smooth out the forehead once more. Now, close your eyes tighter and tighter. Feel the tension. Relax your eyes. Keep your eyes closed, gently and comfortably, and notice the relaxation. Now clench your jaws, bite your teeth together; study the tension throughout the jaws. Relax your jaws now. Let your lips part slightly. Appreciate the relaxation. Now press your tongue hard against the roof of your mouth. Look for the tension. All right. Let your tongue return to a comfortable and relaxed position. Now purse your lips. Press your lips together tighter and tighter. Relax the lips. Note the contrast between tension and relaxation. Feel the relaxation all over your face, all over your forehead and scalp, eyes, jaws, lips, tongue and throat. The relaxation progresses further and further.


Now attend to your neck muscles. Press your head back as far as it can go and feel the tension in the neck now roll it to the left. Straighten your head and bring it forward. Press your chin against your chest. Let your head return to a comfortable position and study the relaxation. Let the relaxation develop. Shrug your shoulders. Hold the tension. Drop your shoulders and feel the relaxation. Neck and shoulders relaxed. Shrug your shoulders again and move them around. Bring your shoulders up and forward and back. Feel the tension in your shoulders and in your upper back. Drop your shoulders once more and relax. Let the relaxation spread deep into the shoulders, right into your back muscles; relax your neck and throat, and your jaws and other facial areas as the pure relaxation takes over and grows deeper, deeper, ever deeper.


Relax your entire body to the best of your ability. Feel that comfortable heaviness that accompanies relaxation. Breathe easily and freely in and out. Notice how the relaxation increase as you exhale. As you breathe out, just feel that relaxation. Now breathe right in and fill your lungs inhale deeply and hold your breathe. Study the tension. Now exhale, let the walls of your chest grow loose and push the air out automatically. Continue relaxing and breathe freely, gently. Feel the relaxation and enjoy it. With the rest of your body as relaxed as possible, fill your lungs again. Breathe in deeply and hold it again. That's fine, breathe out and appreciate the relief. Just breathe normally. Continue relaxing your chest and let the relaxation spread to your back, shoulders, neck and arms. Merely let go. Enjoy the relaxation.


Now let's pay attention to your abdominal muscles; your stomach area. Tighten your stomach muscles, make your abdomen hard. Notice the tension. And relax. Let the muscles loosen and notice the contrast. Once more, press and tighten your stomach muscles, make your abdomen hard. Notice the tension. And relax. Let the muscles loosen and notice the contrast. Once more, press and tighten your stomach muscles. Hold the tension and study it, relax. Notice the general well being that comes with relaxing your stomach. Now draw your stomach in, pull the muscles in and feel the tension this way. Relax again, let your stomach out. Continue breathing normally and easily. Feel the gentle massaging action all over your chest and stomach. Now pull your stomach in again and hold the tension. Push out and tense like that; hold the tension. Once more, pull in and feel the tension.


Now relax your stomach fully. Let the tension dissolve as the relaxation grows deeper. Each time your breathe out, notice the rhythmic relaxation both in your lungs and in your stomach. Try and let go of all contractions anywhere in your body. Now direct your attention to your lower back. Arch your back, making your lower back quite hollow, and feel the tension along your spine. Settle down comfortably again, relaxing the lower back. Just arch your back and feel the tension as you do so. Try to keep the ready of your body as relaxed as possible. Try to localize the tension throughout your lower back area. Relax once more, relaxing further and further. Relax your lower back, relax your upper back. Spread the relaxation to your stomach, chest, shoulders, arms and facial area, these parts relaxing further, further, further, ever deeper.


Let go of all tensions and relax. Now flex your buttocks and thighs. Flex your thighs by pressing down your heels as hard as you can. Relax and note the difference. Straighten your knees and flex your thigh muscles again. Hold the tension. Relax your hips and thighs. Allow the relaxation to proceed on its own. Press your feet and toes downward, away from your face, so that your calf muscles become tense. Study the tension. Relax your feet and calves. This time, bend your feet toward your face so that you feel tension along your shins. Bring your toes right up. Relax again. Keep relaxing for a while.


Now let yourself relax further all over. Relax your feet, ankles, calves and shins, knees, thighs, buttocks and hips. Feel the heaviness of your lower body as you relax still further. Now spread the relaxation to your stomach, waist, lower back. Let go more and more. Feel that relaxation all over. Let it proceed to your upper back, chest, shoulders and arms, right to the tips of your fingers. Keep relaxing more and more deeply. Make sure that no tension has crept into your throat; relax your neck and your jaws and all your facial muscles. Keep relaxing your whole body like that for a while. Let yourself relax all over.


Now you can become twice as relaxed as you are merely by taking in a deep breath and exhaling slowly. With your eyes closed you become less aware of objects and movements around you, thus preventing any surface tensions from developing. Breathe in deeply and feel yourself becoming heavier. Take in a long, deep breath and let it out very slowly. Feel how heavy and relaxed you have become.


In a state of perfect relaxation you should feel unwilling to move a single muscle in your body. Think about the effort that would be required to raise your right arm. As you think about raising your right arm, see if you can notice any tensions that might have crept into your shoulder and arm. You decide not to lift the arm but to continue relaxing. Observe the relief and the disappearance of tension.


Just carry on relaxing like that. When you wish to get up, count backward from four to one. You should then feel fine, refreshed, wide awake and calm.

A Full Breathing Exercise
Step 1:  Lie prone on the floor. Loosen your belt and restrictive clothing.


Step 2:  Relax and exhale as completely as possible. Begin to inhale slowly making your belly rise. Now move your rib cage. Now your chest. Hold it for a second. Now, exhale completely, all the air out of your lungs. Try it again. This is complete breathing. Breathe normally for a while, and in the next minute take at least one more complete breath. Pause one minute.


Step 3:  You are still lying prone. As you lie there you will begin stretching muscles to achieve unblocked circulation. Bring your arms above your head and stretch them away from you fully. Now stretch your legs and feet downward, away from you, take a deep breath, let go and relax. Pause ten seconds. Feel the effects of the stretch on your body and on your breathing. Pause 15 seconds. Now sit up very slowly.


Step 4:  Stand up for this part of the exercise. There are three very basic stretching postures to increase flexibility.
  • backward bend
  • forward bend
  • side-to-side bend


As you do your backward bend pay attention to stretching your abdomen and back muscles. Important: Go only as far as you can. Don't push yourself. Bend slowly. As you do your forward bend, pay attention to the stretch of your back muscles and backs of legs; blood in head and arms. As you do your side stretch, pay attention to stretching in your chest, sides and neck.


Step 5:  Assume a comfortable sitting posture, one you can hold for 15 to 20 minutes. This could be in a chair. Get comfortable and close your eyes when you are ready. Please note everything you are aware of C outside sounds, your bodily awareness, thoughts; note this awareness and do not change it. Then, notice shifting from outside sounds to thoughts of bodily awareness.


After approximately five minutes of this, notice that breathing is occurring; again, not to change it but only to notice it. One can enhance this noticing by attaching the words breathing out to the breath as it leaves the nostrils and breathing in as the breath reenters. As awareness shifts from breathing to thoughts of external sounds, allow that to happen and the return to breathing out-breathing in (following the breath).


Continue this for five to seven minutes. At this point, try to incorporate some visual imagery in the form of a golden light with the in-breath. See yourself breathing in this golden light and watching it fill the inside of your body. This could be in a particle, vapor, smoke, or mist-like form, whatever is comfortable for you. Visualize this light in your head, shoulders, chest and breath out any tensions in the form of a black color. Continue until you visually experience your whole body as being filled with this golden light. Experience that feeling.


Stay with this experience for another minute or two. Then, become aware of your breath again, with your body sitting on the floor or chair (feeling grounded). When ready, open your eyes.


Step 6:  Try this breathing exercise for 15 to 20 minutes daily until you are able to achieve full breathing and stress reduction in a progressively shorter period of time.