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Managing Stress

I remember wondering as an adolescent how nice it must be to be an adult – to enjoy complete independence. I envisioned a carefree world where I could balance all of my responsibilities perfectly. I now find that the older I get, the more fictional this idea becomes. The reality is that life can be a constant circus act of juggling family responsibilities, work commitments, educational pursuits and the hustle of trying to please everyone. Finding balance in the midst of a fire fight of competing interests inevitably causes stress, thus the need to learn to cope well with stress is universal.

Dr. Patrick Steffen, associate director of the Clinical Psychology department at Brigham Young University, teaches courses in Stress Psychobiology, Biofeedback, and Psychotherapy. I had the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss three simple ways to reduce stress.

The first two probably won’t surprise you.

1) Paced Breathing

You’ve probably been told at one point or another to “take a deep breath” when you needed to calm down. Breathing is often associated with stress relief. The problem is, most people don’t know how to breath in a way that actually reduces stress. In fact, according to Dr. Steffen, about half the people seeking to reduce stress through breathing exercises tend to do so by raising the chest while inhaling – a technique that actually increases stress and tension. Rather than breathing high in the chest, those seeking to reduce stress are encouraged to breathe “low and slow”. Another term for this is “paced breathing”. This means that breathing should be done low in the diaphragm (your stomach area) and at a rate of about 6 breaths per minute (breathe in for 5 seconds, then out for 5 seconds). 6 breaths per minute looks like this:

Easy enough? Spending even a few minutes a day taking full, calm breaths at this steady pace can do a lot to mitigate stress.

2) Regular Exercise

Exercise is the next simplest way of reducing stress. Dr. Steffen explained to me the science of this. It is beneficial in at least two ways: First, exercise uses up epinephrine or adrenaline cortisol, which your body produces in excess when you are under stress. Thus, it has a cleansing and renewing effect on the body. Second, exercise simply regulates your respiration and heartrate. What all of this means essentially is that regular exercise can help to bring your body into a state of balance, which helps to keep your stress level in check.

3) Biofeedback Therapy

If you’re looking to go beyond paced breathing and regular exercise, a third and notably more scientific approach to getting a handle on stress is known as biofeedback therapy. Participants in biofeedback are hooked up to several devices which monitor their body’s response to stress. Two of the most common responses include muscle tension and change in skin temperature. Once participants are all set up, they are then allowed to see a screen which depicts, in real time, their physical manifestations of stress. Most people, when made aware of their body’s most notable stress response, are able to lower it just by seeing the screen and thinking about it.

Dr. Steffen says that most first-time participants in biofeedback therapy are surprised to discover how much stress they are actually under – they become accustomed to living with stress. I’m sure many people have just become accustomed to living with stress. However, simple lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and the application of paced breathing, along with the option of using biofeedback therapy to discover our signs of stress, can help you to improve your quality of life and defeat stress when it strikes, as it always does.