Most of us are juggling multiple balls throughout the day: work, home, family, relationships. We are "on the go" even when we're sitting down -- dealing with crises, or getting ready for the next thing we have to do. Unless we love what we're doing, these daily challenges can create wear and tear on our bodies, our emotions and our minds. Over the course of the day, the net result is a stress level that keeps on increasing.
Here is a six-step, six-second relaxation technique that can temporarily bring your stress level down; if you use the technique throughout the day, it can help lower your baseline stress level. Steps 2 through 5 each can induce relaxation on their own; together they do so more effectively. Read through each of the steps before you give this exercise a try; some steps may require practice. Some people find that their sense of relaxation is enhanced by closing their eyes when using the technique. Once you've mastered the steps, try them both ways to see whether having your eyes open or closed works better for you.
Please note that when you first start to use this technique, it will take a bit longer than six seconds; once you've mastered the steps, though, you can do it quickly.
Step 1: Notice that you're stressed.
This first step is perhaps the hardest; like a fish who doesn't realize that it's in water, if your feeling of being stressed lasts for more than a couple of minutes (particularly if you feel swamped), after a while you may stop being aware that you are stressed.
For most people, the experience of stress takes a specific form. For instance, some people automatically tense certain muscles (e.g., shoulders, lower back), whereas other people feel their heart speed up, and still others become preoccupied with thoughts about the stressful situation. Once you recognize the form(s) that your response to stress takes, you can use your response to stress as a signal to yourself, a flag that captures your attention, alerting you that you are stressed. When that flag goes up, you proceed through the rest of the steps.
Step 2: Find some humor in your situation.
Humor can be a terrific way to relieve stress. Step 2 tries to capitalize on this by having you find some humor in the situation. The humor may be visual -- perhaps imagining a humorous hat or face paint on someone who is being difficult -- or it may be about finding some irony in the situation. Or, if all else fails, it may involve thinking about something else that was funny -- a scene from a film, a funny situation you've been in before, a joke that you remember. The goal with this step is to feel genuinely amused. Your lips don't need to smile, but you should be smiling inside, which will begin to decrease your stress level.
Step 3. Take a deep breath in.
Many forms of relaxation and meditation begin with a slow, deep, diaphragmatic breath (inhaling through your nose), and this six-second technique is no different. With diaphragmatic breathing, your lower belly -- your abdomen -- gets bigger as you breathe in; you should be able to feel the breath not only going into your upper chest but also toward your belly button. To make sure that you're breathing deeply, put your hands on your abdomen as your breathe. As you inhale, your abdomen and hands should rise. It can take a bit of practice to get the hang of it if you haven't had previous experience with diaphragmatic breathing.
Step 4: Start to exhale.
After inhaling, begin to exhale slowly through your mouth; your abdomen should lower during the exhalation.
Step 5: Say a calming word or phrase.
While exhaling, say a calming word or phrase, perhaps "peace" or "calm." If you've meditated and have a mantra, you can use that. If all else fails, try the word "one." Ideally, the word should be something that helps you relax or imagine something relaxing.
Step 6: Check your muscles to make sure they're not tensing.
The final step is to check whether your muscles feel less tense. If not, try to "shake out" the tension in whatever muscles are tense.
After completing all the steps, you should feel at least somewhat calmer and less stressed. If you were incredibly stressed before you begin the exercise, you probably won't feel very relaxed after Step 6, but you should feel less stressed than before you started the exercise. Thus, the technique should decrease your stress level from whatever it was prior to going through the steps.
You can use this technique whenever you want, as many times as you like, as often as you like. Whenever you notice that your stress level is high or increasing, proceed through the six steps again. If you forget a step or two, that's okay. (Don't get stressed about missing a step!) The technique will still work.
Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room.