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Imagine this: You’re sitting at work minding your own business when out of the blue, some jerk face schedules a meeting at the end of the day. Groan. You have to pick up your daughter from daycare across town and the late meeting means you’ll be late to pick her up. But the meeting must be important and you’re a team player so…
At the meeting you realize people are just sitting around waiting for their turn to talk. Nothing will be accomplished here. You sit and stew. Finally, you get into your car to pick up the little one who’s probably eating toilet mints by now. But when you hit the freeway, traffic is bumper to bumper. The slower you move, the angrier you become.
Finally, you pick up your kid and she pouts all the way home and throws her dinner on the floor. You would scream but you’re too tired. You desperately need to unwind. It’s too late for yoga. So you reach for the cookies. This is your life.
What Stress Does to You
Modern life has all kinds of benefits. For instance, you can go outside without worrying about being eaten by a sabre tooth tiger. The trade off is that day in and day out you constantly endure lots of little stresses.
Unfortunately, your body responds to stress the same way whether you are being chased by a tiger or under deadline pressure at work. The difference is that when no tigers are around, you can chill out. But deadlines never go away, even when you’re on vacation.
Long-term activation of your stress response system makes you stew without respite in a toxic bath of hormones that eventually kills you. And this is not a swift and merciful death. Stress death is preceded by years of poor health and misery.
Nip Stress in the Bud
I’ve tried lots of different things to deal with stress. Yoga and exercise are great. Massage works wonders. Unfortunately, most stress-relief methods are difficult to apply in the moment, and therefore tend to be palliative, rather than preventative. Personally, I would rather stop stress in its tracks than accept it and deal with the consequences later, after my body is completely trashed.
Over the years, I’ve learned some nifty tricks for on-the-spot stress prevention and I’d like to share my top three. These tips were selected to meet the following criteria:
- Must be fast
- Must be free
- Cannot require any specialized knowledge or skill
- Cannot make me sweaty
- Cannot require any equipment
- Cannot prevent me from drinking coffee
Technique 1: 15-Count Breath
The fifteen-count breath works best if you’re lying flat on your back with your arms and legs spread and palms facing the ceiling. However, you can apply this technique at any time, in any position.
Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose for a count of six, hold your breath for a count of two, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of seven. The inhalation should completely fill your lungs and expand your chest. The exhalation should be a loud, audible gush that you finish with a strong push of the stomach until you are completely empty. Most people find that four rounds is plenty.
Pro tip: Try this after a hard workout or run to re-center yourself. You will be surprised how much a few cycles of fifteen-count breathing can aid recovery.
Technique 2: Laugh Tracks With Loved Ones
Lots of athletes use music to alter their arousal state. I hacked this idea a little to help me with my stress.
Rather than listen to chill-out music, I have an audio recording of a funny conversation I had with my sisters a few years ago. I keep the audio clip on my phone so I can listen to it when I’m in traffic or stuck on a difficult problem at work and it never fails to take the edge off my stress. As a matter of fact, it makes me laugh so hard I almost pee in my pants. The recording doesn’t have to be funny though. Some of my clients use sweet voicemails from their significant others.
Pro tip: Stand-up comedy recordings work, too, but are not as effective because they are by nature impersonal. For best results, use a recording of a good time spent with a loved one.
Technique 3: 9-7-5 Squeeze
You’ve probably seen those little balloons filled with sand that people squeeze to relieve stress. These things work because of Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation, which states that tension in one muscle can recruit surrounding muscles. So when you squeeze a ball, the muscles in your hand irradiate the muscles in your forearm. The release that follows the squeeze has a de-stressing effect.
The problem with the squeeze balls is the effect is localized to your extremities. Irradiation is most pronounced when your forearms, glutes, and abs are all tensioned at once. The full-body release that follows maximal tension of forearms, glutes, and abs is remarkable.
- Stand up with your feet under your shoulders.
- With your elbows at your sides, position your hands as though they are on a low steering wheel.
- Now squeeze your fists, glutes, and abs as hard as you can for a count of nine.
- Then rest for a count of nine.
- Squeeze for seven.
- Rest for seven.
- Squeeze for five.
- Rest for five.
Each squeeze should be maximal exertion that leaves you trembling.
Feel free to experiment with other rep schemes but beware of diminishing returns. I started doing this on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scheme, but it made me sweaty and exhausted.
Pro tip: Be careful not to grind your teeth. This technique tends to activate the muscles in your neck and jaw and you might find yourself gritting your teeth painfully.
Make It Automatic
The trick to getting ahead of the stress curve is self-awareness. Stress is difficult to prevent if you don’t see it coming. This is why the practice of reflection is such an important aspect of the Whole Life Challenge. Try to use some of your reflection time to identify things that made you stressed or anxious throughout the day. Pretty soon you will identify patterns. When you understand the patterns, you will have the self-awareness you need to nip stress in the bud.