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Summer 2009 | Volume 32, Number 2 | Features

Stress-busting Secrets

According to John Medina, director of SPU’s Brain Center for Applied Learning Research, stress can bring about brain damage. But this stress-related brain damage is reversible.

Here there’s more good news.

We don’t need to wait for mealtime or a trip to the gym. No MP3s or reckless drivers are necessary. We can start right now, right here, with nothing more than our minds, bodies, and — perhaps — our friends.

Try one of the techniques recommended by Bev Wilson, SPU professor of clinical psychology. Wilson has been working with Jenna Lee, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at SPU, to test a program to train teachers in various methods for stress reduction in elementary school classrooms. They are equipping teachers with practices that will help them work with young children who often suffer from stress, and that will also help the teachers themselves respond to stressful situations.

These disciplines are easy for all of us to use at just about any time of the day.

Controlled breathing. “Focus on taking in enough oxygen,” says Wilson, “and doing it in a way that relaxes your body. Pay attention to your breath.” To breathe correctly, you don’t raise your shoulders or expand your chest — you draw the air into your belly, so it expands outward. Many of us who want our stomachs to be flat may object to this, but Wilson emphasizes that “tummy breathing” provides the oxygen you need.

Imagination. Wilson recommends that we take our minds off of our sources of stress, and picture ourselves in a calming environment. “Focus on something you find peaceful,” she says. “It might be walking on the beach in Hawaii. Maybe it’s being in a boat.” Wilson feels calm when she remembers lying in the hammock at her grandmother’s house. “There were oak trees above,” she says. “The wind would blow, and the leaves would make a soft rustling sound. I find these images really peaceful.”

Muscle relaxation. “When you’re lying in bed and you’re worrying about what you have to do tomorrow,” says Wilson, “stop thinking about that, and start thinking about relaxing muscles in different parts of your body, where the tension is.” Wilson recommends we practice alternately tensing and relaxing different muscles, so that we learn to control them better. “When the body is relaxed,” says Wilson, “the mind naturally follows.”

Social support. We can reduce our stress, says Wilson, by investing in relationships that offer empathy. That is to say, we benefit from conversations with friends who really listen and acknowledge our emotions.

This isn’t about finding someone who will fix or eradicate the things that stress us. It’s about finding friends who will come alongside us for support. “You need to know that you’ve been heard,” says Wilson. “You need to know that somebody’s there and that you’re not crazy, you’re not delusional. You need someone who will affirm for you that this is a stressful thing. It’s part of what a psychologist or counselor does, but we can also do this for each other.”

Back to Healthy Ways to Cope With Stress.

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