We all deal with mental stress at various points in our lives. Stress can come from almost anything — work, family, relationships, friendships, finances, time, etc. Some people deal with more stress than others, and some are better at dealing with stressful situations. Some become stressed very easily while others are slower to feel stress. When we don’t deal with stress well, we can experience chronic pain and other physiological symptoms — headaches, stomach aches, gastrointestinal issues, nausea, back pain, fatigue, tension, chest pain, urinary symptoms, etc.
What is the main difference between those who deal with acute stress effectively and those who have trouble relieving stress? It’s actually small series of learned skills: 1) Identifying the presence of stress; 2) Identifying an effective outlet to cut off and relieve the stress; and 3) following through with the outlet. (Chronic stress-relief and prevention skills have more steps involved, but we’ll save that for another post). For this post, we’re going to strengthen #2 in the acute stress skill set — expanding our menu of stress outlets to help prevent acute stress from building into chronic stress.
When dealing with acute stress many of us make a common mistake: we try to think our way out of it. This usually causes rumination and more stress. In a mind-body relationship, overwhelming mental stress usually means we are neglecting the body…meaning we need to re-distribute energy away from our mind and back into our body — less thinking, and more doing.
There are many ways to re-distribute energy, either by learning skills or utilizing what’s available around us. Physical activity is generally the quickest way to both distract ourselves from a stressor and re-distribute energy when facing acute stress. Next on the chain would be meditation and relaxation techniques — which are highly effective for both acute and chronic stress, especially if practiced consistently. Cognitive restructuring is also helpful, though more for chronic stress and/or preventive measures (as it involves re-training our brains to respond to situations in a more healthy manner).
Here are 10 ways to alleviate acute stress (in no particular order):
1. Racquetball (read-and-react sports are highly effective for re-focusing our minds and getting our bodies involved)
2. Batting Cages (another read-and-react sport)
3. Yoga or Pilates
5. Punching bag (alternatives: Pillow Punching, or Hitting a bed with a pillow).
7. Gym (weight-lifting)
9. Martial Arts/Karate/Kung Fu
10. Meditation/Relaxation techniques (deep breathing, emotive imagery)
There are many other options to alleviate acute and chronic stress. Some outlets require the assistance of either professionals (acupuncture, psychotherapy) or a willing partner (sex, tennis, catch, pillow fight, wrestling). There are certainly more you can add to this list. In fact, it is best to create your own list and keep it with you so when needed you have a stress-relief menu handy.
What’s important is that the activity is not simply physical, but that it also takes mental focus that distracts our minds from the stress. Physical activities like running or walking are good exercise and can help with chronic stress, however they are not necessarily good distractors for acute mental stress since they don’t take as much mental focus (how often are we still thinking about other things while walking or running?).
The other important element is that they are things you can practice on your own so you don’t have to rely on someone else to be around when immediate stress relief is needed. If you experience chronic stress or stress-related chronic pain, it is best to seek professional help for stress-relief skill building. But whether chronic or acute, incorporating outlets similar to the ones above on a consistent basis is key to preventing and alleviating mental stress.