John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Holiday Blues...or Holiday Stress?

pulling hair out

The holidays are just around the corner, and every year about this time I start seeing tips on how to cope with the “Holiday Blues.” But frankly, I’m not convinced it’s about the blues so much as the stress.

And given that the season comes every year, the stressors are predictable. Usually they fall into one of three categories: getting your shopping done (or paid for), spending time with family, and travel.

We all know what the solutions are to shopping-stress. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t overspend. And pace yourself. The trick isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing it.

Stress from family contact is a bit more complex and emotionally loaded. Of course, some people love spending time with their family over the holidays. If this you, and your family is not dysfunctional, consider yourself blessed. But for the rest us, the trick, I think, to coping with family events is to bring as much grace and humor to the outing as we can muster. Parents are never perfect and some may be quite flawed; siblings will often compete with each other, even they are supposed to be grownups; and old family patterns will mysteriously come out of hiding and cause us to revert back to some earlier, less mature age. How many movies have been made about this very theme?

Well, here’s my tip for coping with family matters: whatever happens, try not to personalize it.

Maybe the best way to cope with holiday stress is to find new meaning in old traditions. Don’t let all the hype and commercialism win. Of course, if you are a christian, the season will have special meaning to you. But even if you are not, the season offers plenty of (new) opportunities to give, connect, and love. Indeed, I don’t know of a single better way to cope with any kind of stress than by connecting with other people.

Happy holidays.

(Top photo credit: BrittanyBush. Bottom photo credit: samikki)

A natural cure for anxiety and stress: belly breathing

In 1982, during my first stint in graduate school, I learned a simple but powerful breathing technique as a form of meditation. Abdominal breathing, or “belly breathing” if you prefer, is an excellent way to calm your body when you feel stressed or anxious. In my own life, I’ve returned to the practice again and again over the years, during times of distress or challenge. But I also teach it in my psychotherapy practice. It’s especially helpful for people who struggle with panic attacks and anxiety. I’d like to teach it to you now.

Make sure you’re sitting comfortably in your chair...close your eyes....for the first few moments, begin to pay attention to your breathing...don’t try to do anything, just notice the air coming in, and going out...

...after a few moments, begin breathing in through you nose, and out through your mouth...breath in, breath out...don’t move forward until you get the hang of this...let the air come all the way into your lungs, almost as if each breath filled you up all the way to the bottom of your toes, and then let the air out, slowly, gently...

(If your breathing is full, your belly should move up and down. You can test this by placing your hand on your abdomen as your breath). may notice that your thoughts wander while you breath...that’s okay, that’s normal... but now, with each breath, each time you exhale, I want you to silently say the word “one” to yourself...

...breath in, breath out, and silently say the word “one” each time you let the breath come out through your mouth...

...there one more thing to do while you’re exhaling...each time you breath out, let your body go slack...just let the tension in your body fall away...

...breath in through you nose, and breath out through you mouth, silently saying the word “one” to yourself, and letting the tension in your body fall away...

...continue breathing like this for time, eyes closed...remember, when you thoughts wander--and they will--gently go back to “one”...

..after a time, open your eyes and slowly look should feel refreshed...

It’s no accident that most of the world’s great religious traditions have incorporated some form of meditation into their spiritual practices. Meditation, of which this breathing technique is a form, provides the practitioner with a deep sense of calm. This has been known for hundreds of years; it’s only recently that scientists have taken an interest in studying the practice empirically. As it turns out, science has discovered what spiritual practitioners have known all along: meditation works.

The effects are both immediate and long-term. Once you manage a certain level of proficiency with belly breathing, it will make you feel deeply calm inside, at peace. But if you practice it regularly, there is good evidence to suggest that you’ll also experience health benefits as well.

Belly breathing is a simple skill to learn, but it does require a bit of practice to become proficient at it. When we are not engaged in productive, purposeful thought, our minds naturally wander. This seems to be the normal state of affairs. Unfortunately, during times of stress or anxiety, our thoughts drift to worries, concerns, or items on our to-do lists. This effect of this sort of thinking is increased physiological arousal. We all need a way to quiet ourselves. Deep, replenishing breaths bring arousal down.

By focusing on a neutral word, like “one,” we sidestep the mind’s tendency to get lost in emotionally-loaded thoughts. A variation on this tactic is to count with each exhale: breath in, breath out (1), breath in, breath out (2), breath in, breath out (3)...and so on. When your thoughts wander off, start counting over again. Most people can’t get to 5 without their thoughts wandering away. In my case, it took me almost a year of practice before I could consistently reach 5 without having to re-start. This is normal. It takes time to train your mind to be still. Of course, breathing also can also teach you something about patience, but that’s another post...

Stress (part II)

There is no single strategy for coping with stress that will fit all situations, but maybe one of the following items will give you some ideas of things to try:

1. Learn to say “no.”
2. Learn to quiet your body and mind--breathing, meditation, yoga, whatever.
3. Open up--talk to a friend, family, clergy member, or therapist.
4. Go on an information diet. Unplug from the internet, turn off the TV.
5. Refine your time management system. GTD anyone? Covey?
6. Face what you’re trying to avoid.
7. Walk, ride, lift, or swim. (Exercise helps your mind, not just your body)
8. Find your spiritual center. Church? Nature? Vocational calling?
9. Let a few things slide.
10. Get a massage.
11. Eat something crunchy.
12. Take a frequent breaks.
13. Instead of working more, try working less.
14. Dare to sleep in.
15. Lose yourself in music.
16. Take a day trip. (A fresh venue)
17. Stressful situation: Is it a threat? Or challenge? (Perception is everything)
18. Examine your assumptions. (Hint: see absolutist thinking)
19. Pet a dog or a cat.
20. Find something that makes you laugh (or at least smile)

In part I, I said that a simple definition of stress is when demands exceed resources.

Coping with stress will almost always involve variations on the following three strategies: (1) Change the demands (e.g, problem solve); (2) Improve or manage your resources (e.g., time management methods); (3) mitigate the effects of the stress response (e.g., learn a formal method of relaxation). The strategies you deploy will depend heavily on the situation, but problem solving is almost always our first line of defense for coping. In others words, we try to do something about the situation: fix it, resolve it, eliminate it, work around it, whatever.

The rub, however, is that eventually we’ll encounter stressful situations that we can’t do anything about. When that happens, we have to shift strategic gears and begin to do something to lessen the effects of stress. There are countless ways of doing this, but they’re all designed to do the same basic thing: quiet the stress response. (For instance, there are reasons why alcohol and dogs never seem to go out of style. For better or worse, people use both to help them cope.)

Of course, if we can’t change demands, sometimes we can boost our resources to meet those demands. Maybe we go to a seminar on GTD (Getting Things Done, by David Allen), or maybe we try get more sleep or eat better. Or maybe we decide to unplug from the constant flow of information that is clamoring for our precious attention. Interestingly enough, our ability to cope with stress fluctuates over time. If we’re short on sleep, heatlh, or energy, for instance, our coping ability drops off significantly. Some resources are more harder to improve than others.

Are there people who cope better than others? Yes. What do they know that the rest of us don’t? I’ll take a shot at answering that in part III.

Stress (part I)

Here’s a simple definition of stress: When environmental demands exceed our psychological, social, and material resources, we experience stress. Or rather, a stress response.

Unfortunately the word “stress” has become an elastic, all-purpose term. It gets stretched in different directions to cover words like stressor, stress response, anxiety, and indeed the entire stressful person-environment transaction.

For the record, a stressor is typically external to us. A long commute, a whopping bill, a critical boss. We can point to stressors. A stress response, in contrast, is what your body goes through when you experience stress (for instance, stress hormones pouring into the blood stream). Anxiety, which may occur when we are experiencing stress, is more akin to apprehension—but it can occur in the absence of an identifiable stressor.

Back to the definition of stress: ‘’…When demands exceed resources…”

Sometimes when I ask people about stress, it’s easier to ask them about the “demands” that are being placed on them. Who or what in the environment is asking something of you? If your boss wants a project done by tomorrow, that’s a demand. If the road is congested with traffic, that’s a demand. And if a hungry lion shows up in your front yard, that’s a demand, too. The demand side of the stress equation basically means that some person, thing, or situation requires that you respond.

The other side of the stress equation is the resources we need to respond to the demands. The most obvious resource that everybody thinks about is time. But we forget that attention is just as precious as time, as is physical energy. Moreover, competence or skill is a resource (try changing a tire when you don’t know how), as is money, and the emotional support of family and friends. Resources can be psychological, social, physical, or material.

If, when the demands come, we have plenty of resources, we’re in good shape. If you’ve got plenty of money (resource) in the bank when that credit card bill shows up (demand), no problem. If you’re boss wants you to complete a certain project (demand) by a certain deadline, using a certain computer program, and you’ve got plenty of time (resource) and skill with computers (resource), again, no worries. But if you’re aging parent is sick (demand), and you don’t have sufficient time (resource) to attend to them, or enough money (resource) to buy services for them, you’ll experience a stress response.

There are a couple of things to remember about stress. One is that stressors don’t have to be big to count. There are some life events that everybody finds stressful: divorce, death of a loved one, house fire, and so on. But many of the demands that are being placed on you are in fact daily, small events. There is a body of research evidence that indicates that these “daily life hassles” are just as important as large scale stressful life events, if not more-so. Any single hassle may not be all that difficult to cope with, but when you experience several of them over the course of any one day, your store of resources, especially time, attention, and energy, gets depleted.

The second thing to remember is that stress in the short-run isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If that lion really does show up in your front yard, your body’s stress response will be your friend—it’ll help you run faster than you could otherwise. But it’s not short-run stress that hurts us; it’s prolonged stress. When we experience stress for long periods of time, with few opportunities for relief, our minds and bodies suffer. We become preoccupied with the demands, our attentional processes narrow, and we experience fatigue, tension, and finally exhaustion.

Of course, no one escapes stress. The environment is filled with challenges, threats, and demands. But how do we cope? Stayed tuned for part II.