Posted 8:59 a.m. Thursday, May 26, 2022

The hiking trail at La Crosse’s Myrick Park marsh a nearby getaway for relaxation for those on the UW-La Crosse campus.

UWL psychology professor shares stress management techniques

The following post is based on a public presentation from UWL Professor of Psychology Ryan McKelley “Persisting in a Pandemic.” 

It has been more than two years since the pandemic started. All the while, day-to-day stress hasn’t subsided. Health concerns, family struggles, financial troubles and geopolitical divides are just a few examples of challenges that may have added more weight to an already difficult time. We may not even be aware when the pot that was slowly simmering on the back burner has started to boil over. 

If you are beginning to feel tinges of anxiety that you can’t shake, dizziness, confusion, trouble remembering, emotional numbness, exhaustion, insomnia, sadness, or sense that you’re completely alone in your struggle, it may be time to examine your stress level and ask for some help.  

While the facts below are not a substitute for professional help, UWL Psychology Professor Ryan McKelley says it is helpful to realize that chronic stress isn’t something to sluff off as unimportant. Identifying it as real is the first step. Research-based strategies have helped many people manage it. 

Stress management techniques 

  • Bottom-up strategies focus on your body as a way to change the brain’s response to stress.
  • Top-down strategies focus on the choices people make using their brain that can affect behaviors and thus the overall health of the body.
  • Sideways approaches such as mindfulness work on the issue from another angle. 

A key to all of these solutions is first is accepting that stressful times, problems and challenges are a fact of life. A state of complete and perfect happiness is not possible.  

Below McKelley shares some of the best research-based stress management techniques.

What is stress?

First, it is important to understand that not all stress is the same.  

Acute stress — or stress that is short lived — is a healthy and adaptive response to stressful situations.  For instance, you are driving down the road and a car abruptly slams on the brakes ahead of you. Immediately, the alarm bells will go off in the amygdala — a tiny almond-shaped section of your brain that is responsible for emotions. The amygdala triggers your fight/flight/freeze response. Your muscles get tense, your heart rate increases, your vigilance and blood pressure all increase. These are all helpful, adaptive responses that help you quickly respond to the situation. When things resolve, the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of your brain responsible for rest and digestion — kicks in. Your body stops producing adrenalin hormones and your stress levels return to normal. 

Chronic stress — or stress in your life that lingers for days, weeks, months, or more — can be problematic. After awhile, if the stress level doesn’t subside, hormones begin to tell us they need something more than adrenaline to deal with the issues. The amygdala begins to produce a different hormone called cortisol as a way to provide more energy over a longer period time. But elevated levels of cortisol come with uncomfortable side effects such as insomnia, exhaustion, confusion, anxiety, and more. 

Chronic stress symptoms

Early chronic effects:  

  • Diminished mental performance
  • Feeling numb or irritable
  • Fatigue 

Later mental health effects:  

  • Demotivation
  • Helplessness
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Increase in substance use  

Physical effects:  

  • Impaired immune response
  • Sleep dysfunction
  • Hypertension
  • Greater risk of heart disease

How to reduce stress

Relaxation Training 

You may say, “But I can’t relax. That is the problem!” Well, relaxation, just like any skill, takes practice. The more you practice, the better you get at it. Start by creating the conditions for relaxation to occur.  

Try progressive muscle relaxation. Tense up and relax each muscle in your body starting with your feet and working all the way up to your shoulders and neck over the course of several minutes or longer. Do this technique multiple times a day. 

Practice 4,7,8 breathing or other breathing exercises. When we are stressed we tend to hold our breath in our chest, which exacerbates the stress response. Instead, use your belly and diaphragm to breathe. Try practicing this technique for 5-10 minutes a day. When you become good at making this breathing technique a habit, you can change your stress response in the moment by focusing on it. 

Belly Breathing: Cultivate calm by counting your breath as your breathe into your belly 

Try 10 minutes of practicing the 4-7-8 pattern of breathing in through your nose and exhaling through pursed lips. 

  • Inhale (4 sec)
  • Hold (7 sec)
  • Exhale (8 sec)

Keep count of your breathing throughout the exercise. 

(You can also try box or square breathing — inhale 4, hold 4, exhale 4, hold 4)

Reduce stress using your brain

While our bodies can help us relax, so can our minds. Psychologists call this “top-down emotional regulation.” It is about decreasing the intensity of distressing emotions and promoting positive emotions by finding healthy ways to deal with emotions and make decisions.  

Emotional regulation does not mean emotional repression. We don’t want to deny our emotions or look for ways to numb them through other means such as excessive alcohol consumption or other addictive behaviors like excessive TV watching or social media time. Instead, it is healthy to acknowledge that the emotions we feel are present. A useful technique from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, an approach that helps us learn to tolerate emotions, is called Opposite Action

Before you react, pause and consider 2 things: 

  • Does my emotion fit the facts?
  • Will acting on instinct help me in the long run?

If no, consider that a signal to do the opposite: 

  • Anxiety and fear: Want to avoid? Move in closer.
  • Sadness and grief: Want to withdraw? Reach out.
  • Irritation and anger: What to critique or attack? Seek curiosity, empathy, and to understand.
  • Depressed: Want to stay in bed? Be active. Even if this just means getting up and walking around your apartment or house. We think we need to be motivated first to do it, but sometimes acting first will trigger motivation.

Label emotions you feel

Simply labeling an emotional reaction by name (i.e., affect labeling) activates the prefrontal areas of the brain, leading to a decreased response from the amygdala. Saying “I feel sad” or “I feel angry” are ways to potentially help reduce emotional responses in the long term.  

Neuroimaging studies of emotions show that when emotion words (e.g., ‘anger’, ‘disgust’) are present in experimental task, there is less activation in bilateral amygdala than when emotion words are not present (Brooks et al., 2017) 

McKelley recommends the book “Mindful Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions.” - by Author Christopher Germer. 

To F.A.C.E. your challenges like Germer:  

  • Feel the pain.  
  • Accept it.    
  • Compassionately respond.
  • Expect skillful action. 

Practice Mindfulness

Learn how to avoid ruminating in the past or being stuck in the future. Mindfulness is awareness and acceptance of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and environment in the present moment.  

How does it help? 

  • Reduces two big drivers of distress: rumination and worry
  • Promotes acceptance and better mental health outcomes
  • Helps us respond more effectively and authentically to our experience

How do you practice mindfulness? 

  • Focus your attention on the here-and-now, starting with your breath.  
  • Tune into your thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings.  
  • Be an observer. Be curious. Don’t judge.
  • When your mind wanders, gently redirect to the moment by noticing your breathing. 

BONUS: Be mindful of how you spend your time 

  • When you are with human beings – be more mindful by giving them your undivided attention — do not be on your phone or allow your mind to wander. 

What does your “autopilot” look like? 

  • How you fill your free time
  • How your attention wanders during activity
  • How you engage with people you care about

Be intentional with your time and attention in ways that give you: 

  • Rest (e.g., relaxation, sleep)
  • Connection (e.g., quality time with loved ones, pets)
  • Inspiration (e.g., practice gratitude, volunteer)
  • Energy (e.g., exercise, yoga)

Reduce stress by taking care of the body

Don't think of self-care as self-indulgence. Think of it as an oxygen mask on a plane. You put your own mask on before you can help others with their mask. Self-care is a basic right we have that allows us to function and contribute to our friends, family and communities.  

The challenge is that typically the time when we most need self-care, we are least likely to get it. So, we must attempt to make time for it. Consider where you could add self-care into your day by swapping out some of the technology habits that eat up your time such as social media, email or excessive news media consumption. 

Examples of self-care 

  • Get good nutrition: McKelley recommends reading the Michael Pollan book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” for tips on good nutrition.
  • Prioritize social connection: Making social connections is one of strongest protective factors for mental health.  
  • Set boundaries: If something is too much and you know it will produce unnecessary stress, let people know. Learn to say no, or at least, “not yet.” Ask yourself, “Would I have time to do this today or this week?” If not, you likely won’t in several weeks or months. 
  • Physical activity: Get out and move. Consider taking activity “snacks” throughout the day, just as you would have a food snack.
  • Sleep: Sleep is our mental health foundation. Every aspect of wellbeing is attached to sleep. It is a risk factor for all diagnosis. Getting 7-9 hours is not just about duration but set schedules and consistency.
  • Practice the Yang of Self-Compassion: Much of mindfulness and self-compassion is the softer, or “yin” energy in Eastern philosophy. However, more active, or “yang” energy forms of self-compassion can be setting firm boundaries and being assertive about your needs. Check out the book “Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive” by Dr. Kristin Neff.

Studies show your brain is not good at dividing attention

It is a big myth that we can divide our attention in many ways and be more efficient. In the work setting, we attempt to listen to podcasts, monitor email, construct our big ideas, and respond to chat messages — all simultaneously, assuming we must be masters of multitasking. In reality, we are spending way more time on each task because our brain is continually bouncing back and forth between tasks—we are task switching. Multitasking is the arch nemesis of efficiency. 

A Standford University study found that “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” 

“We are not wired to engage in divided attention, yet we are often told to do that. And the pandemic has put that in overdrive,” says McKelley. “So, this experience is stressful even if we don’t acknowledge it as such.” 

True multitasking involves engaging in two tasks simultaneously. But...it's only possible if two conditions are met:

  • At least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., walking or eating)

AND 

  • They involve different types of brain processing 

So, try structuring your day to focus all of your attention on one task at a time. Get rid of the mindless technology interfering with your head space, and you’ll probably feel less stressed as your brain will thank you for more efficient processing.  

 More recommended books from McKelley: 

“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker 

“Do Nothing: How to break away from overworking, overdoing and underliving” by Celeste Headlee