Letting Go of Stress

Dr George M Hayter, M.D., Chairman of Dept of Psychiatry, St Joseph’s Hospital, Orange CA.

Recently, I saw a patient in crisis. Chronically nervous and unable to drive by herself for more than a few miles, she had moved two months earlier from her neighborhood of 30 years. During the transition period she had experienced episodes of panic and had considered being hospitalized.

In my office, her face and body were tense. As she told me her story, however, she started to relax and, though she tensed briefly at one point, with my slight encouragement she continued to relax for the remainder of the session. Thus, in about 15 minutes, this chronically anxious patient was able to achieve near total relaxation, without trying, or even being aware of doing so.

I have observed this process of “de-stressing” over the last ten years with countless patients, with entirely similar results. Yet many people either fail to realize, or refuse to believe, that by following a few simple guidelines, they also can teach themselves, to “let go of” or eliminate stress and its harmful complications from their lives.

“This practice will usually prevent or reverse the stress syndrome.”

If stress is a problem to you, try the following for a week and see if, at the end of that period, you don’t feel less worried, more energetic, and more relaxed.

1) Actively watch for signs of stress: The first step in solving any problem is to identify it. Signs to look for are: worry, nervousness, and increased muscle tension. (More advanced signs such as migraine headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure, chest pains, as well as severe nervousness, depression, or extreme mental confusion may represent complications and require immediate medical or psychiatric attention.)

2) For temporary relief of acute stress, stop daydreaming. If you start to get tense or worried, either A) Identify and consciously address the source of your concern, actively working at resolving the problem, or B) Engage actively in something completely different (a diversion) which requires your full and conscious attention. Since stress is the result of a subconscious involvement with negative thoughts, anything that interferes with preoccupation (absent-mindedness) will counteract tension. When patients consciously and deliberately listen to what I am saying, or else explain to me their problem, it clears their minds of worries and eliminates the tension created by subconscious preoccupations. Likewise, any activity that holds your conscious attention (yes, even watching television) will produce temporary relief.

3) Reduce your baseline level of stress on a daily basis by practicing defocused concentration for 5 to 30 minutes, twice a day. This will reduce stress and produce insights into the causes of chronic problems. I teach this discipline to many of my patients because I am firmly convinced that it is the most effective mental health technique ever devised, for both personal growth and stress reduction. This practice will usually prevent or reverse the stress syndrome, and eliminate or greatly reduce the need for habit-forming tranquilizers (including alcohol and tobacco).

The essence of the technique is to focus your attention, simultaneously, on two or more points of the body, e.g., the right hand and the center of the forehead, or both hands and the forehead, while resisting the natural tendency of the mind to wander. A few deep breaths may help to relax you and get you started. When this exercise is done correctly, a “clearing” of the mind readily occurs, followed by relaxation of the muscles, deeper and slower breathing, and, after about 5 to 15 minutes, a very pleasant sensation of lightness and relaxation. Along with this will come a sense of emotional detachment or “objectivity” to both thoughts and external events, as well as personal insights and realizations that further reduce stress. (Ed. note: See below for a more in-depth explanation of this exercise.)

4) Remove or reduce external sources of stress by positive and creative action. Eventually you must do something about the problem, but be patient. “Hopelessness” is a common condition among patients who honestly believe that nothing can be done about their “impossible” situation or relationship. However, by patiently and unemotionally observing the actions of those who are exerting pressure on you—both when it is actually occurring and later during your defocusing exercise—you will gradually see clearly exactly what you must say or do to improve the situation. This necessary last step, which may take weeks or months to accomplish, is the final result of an intuitive understanding of the problem, reached by patient observation.

By taking a few minutes now to review and understand these four simple principles: awareness, deliberate action, defocusing, and positive action, you can begin to establish a more constructive pattern of responding to stress, which will make a major difference in the way you live and how good you feel.


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