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How To Handle Stress

STRESS – just seeing the word in print can raise your blood pressure!  Unfortunately, it is a fact of life for most of us.  Our culture is fast paced and competitive.  To survive and thrive, especially in an economic downturn, we have to wade through a steady stream of ubiquitous stressors.  So why is it that some people handle stress so well and are a “sea of calm” in a raging storm, but others manifest it in their bodies and create a personal environment for physical pain and disease?

Stressors are all around us but it is how we analyze and react to them that will determine if stress will lead to worse problems.  In his excellent book Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zin writes that “Stress-hardy individuals have greater coping resources than other people under similar circumstances because they view life as a challenge and assume an active role in attempting to exert meaningful control.”  Additionally, he talks about how the feeling of helplessness is a trademark of those that don’t handle stress well.  This “learned helplessness” can be unlearned.  The way to build up your internal armor against stress is to put together resources that will kick in when stress hits.

These resources are physical and emotional, or put another way, external and internal.  Emotional resources are built up through supportive relationships which include a solid network of friends and family, as well as participating in clubs and organizations that reflect your values.  You then build your physical resources through eating right and exercising.  Stress manifests itself in your body and anything you do to build up your body’s defense will help keep you in check when stressors arise.  Internally, how you view yourself and your attitude toward change will play an important role as well.

Regularly practicing meditation is another way to fortify your soul for times when you are under stress.  I practiced basic sitting meditation as a way to deal with stress.  I learned how to clear my mind, focus on being present in the moment, and to follow my breath, focusing on each inhale and exhale.  The key is to put all these resources into play early before you are under maximal stress.  Once you build this reservoir of coping tools, your skills will be tuned up and ready for action when needed.  When I had to have major dental work, for example, I was able to call up this skill and relax enough to get through the procedure without having a nervous breakdown!

There are many internal tools you can cultivate to help you better tolerate stress.  Meditation is one way but think about your life and how much of your waking day is spent running around doing things.  Do you ever just sit for a few moments without thinking about what you have to do next or what happened yesterday?  You are actually missing your life when you never live in the moment.  When you live in your head, everything is magnified, whether it is good or bad.  Spending ten minutes a day of sitting and meditating will make a huge difference in your ability to be present and relaxed in the moment!  According to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, if you practice this form of mediation every day for three weeks of doing this it will become a habit.  He suggests sitting quietly for ten minutes with good, tall posture.  Follow your breath and pay attention to each inhale as your belly expands and each exhale as the belly flattens.  When your mind wanders, gently “tug” it back to your breath and continue on without judgment.

Other tools that are useful for stress relief are:

  • Yoga, which is an Indian form of moving meditation that will strengthen and lengthen your body and center your mind.
  • Qi Gong, which is a more gentle form of moving meditation from China, that helps move your energy and life force known as “Qi” in slow, circular movement patterns.
  • Tai Chi, a martial art from China, which is done slowly and will improve balance and keep your mind focused on the task of coordinating flowing movements into a long, continuous form.

Finally, remember that in your quest to reduce stress you CANNOT worry if you miss your daily meditation or yoga class!  This would defeat the purpose.  I often see people who are so health conscious that they are in a state of heightened stress by trying to eat perfectly and exercising compulsively.  You need to step back and see the big picture.  Stress always trumps a “healthy lifestyle.”  Create balance in your life.  Fortify yourself with the tools to handle stress.  Change from a helpless mindset to one of empowerment where life is a challenge that you accept and roll with.  See things in a new light by looking for the opportunity hidden in every crisis.  Respond to stress, never react to it.  Exert control with the tools at your disposal such as meditation, yoga, and awareness breaks throughout your day.

I want to leave you with an ancient Sufi poem that I think summarizes the way to effortlessly and optimistically flow with life’s twists and turns:

This being human is a guest

house. Every morning

a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture, still,

treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Craig Valency is a Certified Personal Trainer at Fitness Quest 10 (San Diego, CA).  Craig is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (CSCS) and earned a bachelors degree from UCLA.  He has completed coursework in Kinesiology & Exercise Physiology at UCLA, UCSD & Miramar College for prerequisite work towards a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.

He specializes in developing holistic training programs promoting lifestyle change for permanent results in weight loss, toning, strengthening, dynamic flexibility, balance, athletic performance & whole body functional strength & power.  He can be reached at

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