Neuromuscular Relaxation for Stress Management
Many of us struggle to effectively cope with the challenges that life throws our way. When these challenges are not life threatening, it’s easy to just react without thinking about the different coping strategies that might be helpful in the heat of the moment.
Stress is the product of a stressor, or some trigger that “presses our buttons” so to speak. So from a practical perspective, stress is the physical, psychological, emotional and behavioral reactions that accompanying a stressor. These reactions are commonly called stress reactivity. Realizing these physiological consequences, one might be tempted to avoid stressors altogether! Avoiding some stressors is wise and may decrease the frequency of stress reactivity, avoiding all stressors under any and all circumstances (driving, walking alone at night, interpersonal conflict) is not only impossible, it is also not a healthy option. One needs a certain degree of stress to engage oneself in our environment and to learn to cope effectively with life’s challenges.
Given this need to have healthy responses to stressors, there are a number of ways to consciously cope better. Take interpersonal conflict, for example. Negative feelings (anger, frustration) and an argument might be the product of a situation where two people have two different sets of expectations for each other. One way to have a different experience of the same event would be to understand the circumstances around the expectations and stop to ask some key questions.
What is actually expected of me? How do I react when the expectation is voiced? How was my own expectation formed? Is the expectation reasonable given the circumstances? Perhaps not and the expectations need to be altered.
Expectations are often the product of our experiences and may be long held and resistant to change. Changing expectations requires ourselves to explore attitudes and beliefs on both sides, and may involve difficult conversations with others. Such situations may make one feel vulnerable and require emotional effort. The expectations of others, or of ourselves, do not form overnight and they take some time to change. Thus, from this one can see that two important elements in learning to deal with stress are the willingness to address feelings (emotions) and to be patient.
Of course, mastering this approach to resolving conflict is a skill everyone must learn. There are a number of tools that help develop mastery over stress, in part because they help clarify the role of feelings and help one be more patient. Diaphragmatic breathing, meditation or progressive neuromuscular relaxation are effective as a way of calming stress reactivity.
Click on the clip the clip below to get an example of how to do progressive neuromuscular relaxation. Like any other skill, this technique needs to be practiced to be most effective, but if you learn it you may find it useful in moments of stress at your office desk.
Exercise is a good way to mute the negative effects of stress. This may seem surprising, since exercise is itself a stressor. All the short-term physiologic effects of exercise such as increases in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and metabolism, the effects are similar to that produced by interpersonal conflict! How can a stressor be used to counteract another stressor? One reason is that we usually choose exercise, it is not forced upon us. Also, exercise typically gives us a number of health benefits such as a lower resting heart rate, lower blood pressure and less muscle tension after the exercise is over. This is quite different from the interpersonal conflict example, because when the argument stops, heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension remain high. Basically, whenever we exercise we use the physiologic pathways of stress reactivity for a good cause.