This is blog five of the series to educate you about stress and to help you increase your ability to cope with stress. Please refer to previous blogs to review the behaviors that reduce the response of the brain to stress and for the techniques that reduce the response of the brain to acute stress.
This blog will focus on chronic stress. Chronic stress arises from the daily events that you experience that activate the stress-reactive areas of your brain. When you experience stress, using the techniques I am going to teach you can decrease the activity of the stress-responsive brain areas and keep the concentration of stress hormones low. Keeping the concentration of stress hormones low will enhance the quality of your health.
As pointed out in blog four, children who are abused (physically, mentally, sexually) can experience a decreased quality of mental and physical health throughout their lives and a shortened duration of life.
Be aware that some of the material we are recommending works better for some people than others. That is why we provide different techniques for you to try. Try each of them and find out what works for you. We hope that by engaging in the behaviors and techniques we provide, you will not only achieve a better quality of mental and physical health but you will become a meaningful role model for others.
You must practice and repeat the techniques being taught to you. If you have taken piano lessons, you know that without practice your mind cannot get your fingers to move as you want them to. Your mind gets better with practice. Similarly, the more you practice using the techniques to relax your mind, the easier and more effective the techniques will become.
Buffering Technique 1: Expressive writing
Interestingly, writing can contribute to reducing the response of your brain to stress.
The technique that we are going to ask you to use is different from keeping a daily diary, often called journaling. If you would like to keep a daily journal, please do so. However, some consider journaling difficult because if they write about very sensitive issues, someone may find their journal and read it.
The difference between expressive writing and journaling is that no one will ever see what you write about with expressive writing. After you finish doing expressive writing you tear the paper into small pieces and flush it away. This allows you to write about your most private, personal, and intimate issues, the things you cannot discuss with anyone, the things you do not want anyone to judge you about.
While doing expressive writing you may become upset or even cry. That is normal; don't worry about it.
To do expressive writing, take a sheet of paper and something to write with. You cannot use a keyboard, you must write. Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for 15 minutes.
1. Pick any issue of concern to you to write about.
2. The only rule is that you write continuously for 15 minutes. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written. Don't worry about grammar or spelling.
3. While writing DO NOT READ what you have written.
4. When you finish writing, tear up what you have written and flush it away so that no one will ever see what you wrote.
5. The more you do expressive writing, the more beneficial it becomes.
You will notice that the things you write about do not go away. However, they do seem to float to the back of your head. They will become less recurrent, less troubling. You will be calmer. You may notice that you are sleeping better and having the "blues" less often.
Another helpful thing to do is, whenever you wish, write about something you are grateful for. It may be as few or many words as you want. The 15-minute rule doesn't apply to this exercise. Then whenever you are feeling "blue," think about some of the things that you wrote about and are grateful for.
Buffering Technique 2: Guided imagery
Guided imagery involves listening to someone reading a script which you follow as it takes your mind to a beautiful and comfortable place in your imagination. The temperature, smell, sounds, beauty, people, and sights you create for yourself are calming and relaxing.
The thoughts that are disturbing to you are set aside and your brain can calm itself. By referring to blog one you will see that the stress-reactive areas of the brain calm down and the concentration of stress hormones decreases. By decreasing the concentration of stress hormones, guided imagery helps to create a sense of peace and tranquility.
The more you listen to guided imagery, the more effective it becomes at calming your brain and lowering the concentration of stress hormones. If you listen to it often when you are calm and happy, and then think about it when you are upset, your brain will quickly take you back to a state of calmness.
This is a guided imagery we created that you can download and listen to.
Buffering Technique 3: Simple Meditation
We now want to add another technique to your repertoire of what you can do to increase your ability to cope with stress. Meditation is a technique to take your attention and focus it on something that has no emotional value to you. It is to find a way for you to NOT pay attention to thoughts that you find disturbing (such thoughts will activate the stress pathways in your brain). This will contribute to lowering the concentration of the stress hormones in your blood. Meditation will train your mind to become less responsive to stress and will result in physiologic changes that counteract the harmful effects of stress throughout the day.
Meditation is similar to guided imagery, but in guided imagery you listen to a voice that leads you along a pathway to a relaxing spot that you create. In meditation you don't follow a pathway that someone leads you along. Rather you direct the focus of your mind away from the things that bother you and that cause you stress.
1. Find a place that is quiet and private so that you are not disturbed.
2. Select a word that you will use as a focus of your attention. The word should not have any emotional meaning to you. Some examples are CALM, PEACE, RELAX.
3. Focus your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale.
4. Remember, meditation is a trick that helps you focus on a neutral event rather than on a thought that worries you. Knowing that there is nothing you are going to do about the thought that is disturbing you for the brief time that you are meditating will help in letting the thought go.
5. Concentrating on the word you selected and your breathing will get your attention away from the thoughts that are disturbing to you.
6. Allowing your brain to relax for a few minutes will help you achieve more calmness and will reduce levels of stress hormones.
7. Sit or lie down and be comfortable. You can close your eyes or leave them open as you prefer.
8. Meditating for approximately 15 minutes is recommended. However, do so only as long as you enjoy doing it.
The next blog (blog six) will offer some of insights I have gained from conducting many years of research supported by the National Institutes of Health, and, more recently, applying the knowledge gained through our scientific studies to the real world.