Instant Stress Breaking Seminar

We have all heard the word "stress" so many times, I think for many its become boring and devalued. Like many words or concepts, we have over-simplified a very complex, and at times, painful emotion. Stress origins are in fact couched in a very old concept anxiety, which became distress and that then in turn became "stress". So reverting to the original notion of anxiety, I want to actually demonstrate in this class today some simple, but effective physical ways to reduce anxiety.

There is nothing new in the idea of anxiety and it is a normal emotion when we are faced with conflict, thus chronic conflict leads to chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety may lead to illness because anxiety reduces the effectiveness of the immune system. Likewise, chronic anxiety can lead to psychiatric conditions such as a generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias. These in turn may cause other problems, in particular, depression. The Commonwealth Government estimates as many as one in five Australians have psychiatric symptoms sufficient to warrant a diagnosis.

So, how do we become increasingly anxious and how do we place this in a useful and understandable context? I developed the following graph years ago and while analogies are often poor, this is however a useful way to understand how anxiety can develop.


You will note that stress (some subjective fear or conflict) is related to strain (the strength of the material to withstand stress). We often refer to the "metal" of a person. For people two factors are critical in the development of psychological robustness, the first, "personality", which we will not deal with today; secondly our coping resources, which we will deal with next week. But how these develop certainly depends, in part, on genetics ("Gee you're like your mother!!"), but also our environment, sometimes described as the tension or debate between nature and nurture. Thus we are all different, and despite the possibility of cloning, so much depends on the environment and life experience, so I doubt whether even a cloned life will mimic the donor.

I have spent some time explaining this because people come to the work place not only with different talents, but differences in their psychological resilience. The workplace, as well as ourselves, needs to be sensitive to this, being patient and compassionate, accepting that what is extremely stressful for one person, may not be for another.

You will note from the graph that our elastic limit, (EL) is that point where we can "stretch" ourselves, but with no observable change, later we might meet our yield point (YP) and even though we look a little "bent", we manage. Its during these times in our lives your mother may comment, "You look worn out, are you looking after yourself dear?" She is looking beyond just our outward appearance to our soul, and perhaps seeing the 'wear and tear' that stress, such as long hours, hard work, a difficult relationship, and debt etc can bring. This should act like a warning sign. For instance, if a red light came on in your car dash board, you would stop driving and have it checked out - wouldn't you? Humans on the other hand, can be neglectful and go into some type of denial. To do so may lead to the final stage fracture point (FP), breakdown, and this is where so often people in my profession pick up the pieces! At work of course its where your rehabilitation team takes over, it can also be the point of burnout. So how do we avoid this?

In this short seminar today I want to suggest that stress/anxiety is about conflict. Conflict simply is that tension between what we want and what we get. Three types I have discovered are the real, the unreal and unrealistic. Today I don't have the time to talk about these, except to say the real are those conflicts that are inevitable - "In A Road Less Travelled", by M. Scott Peck, he says, "Life is difficult", a truism, but one that helps us move to acceptance that conflict, thus stress, is really unavoidable. The unreal conflicts are those "hang ups" (guilt) we acquire that stem from so long ago they are probably really redundant, but they can get in the way of our happiness, by perpetuating conflict. Finally, unrealistic conflicts are those irrational beliefs we have about ourselves that have the potential to send us crazy - two of which are: "I must be perfect at everything I do" and "I must be loved by everyone".

As I said, I don't have time to give a fair treatment, of conflict but if the last two, (unreal and unrealistic) are a problem then you are carrying unnecssary "luggage" that will make dealing with "real" conflict all the more difficult.

In this session I want to show some instant stress breaking techniques, but based only on the facit of the problem of anxiety. We have all suffered from anxiety. Lets look at the symptoms:

What you might not realise is that these symptoms, which are physical in origin, are caused by an increase in a particular hormone; first adrenaline, secondly hydroxycorticosteroid (cortisol) which is produced by the adrenal gland. This gland is part of the endocrine system, which in turn has two parts: the sympathetic system (the accelerator) and the para-sympathetic (the brake) - using a car analogy. Thus you can guess what part cortisol and adrenaline belong to - the accelerator - which can make you tense (uptight), thus reducing your ability to relax and sleep etc.

One way to "dampen down" the system is by alcohol and benzodiazepines, e.g., valium (a muscle relaxant), both of which are popular instant stress breakers ("God I need a drink!"). However, we are aware of the harmful affects of drugs, and again they have not only side effects, but they also reduce the control we have and need if we are to manage our anxiety better.

If there is excess stress in your life, you may do well to do an assessment of just what is causing it. The four areas we need to address cognitively are: (1) the demand on ourselves; (2) the certainty in our lives, and; (3) and (4) as indicated above the control we have, and the support we have. I have sometimes referred to this as the Matrix of Stress.


Again, today to deal with these issues takes time but as a useful start you might want to take up these issues and certainly better stress management with a counsellor (your work place Employee Assistance Program - EAP) is a good resource.

After this very long introduction, today I want to show you how you can physically reduce stress. First I want you to complete the questionnaire provided. After the exercise I want you to complete it again. You may not a significant difference. It is impossible to have the accelerator and the brake on at the same time. Psycho-physiologically it looks like this:


If your score dropped, it meant that you physically altered not just your psychological level of anxiety, but the very marker (cortisol) that causes this feeling we all refer to as stress.

Here are three more quick stress reduction techniques:

  1. The Watch Method
  2. Centering
  3. Eyes Closed

This paper and others are available on my web page Next time we will examine coping resources and how to develop better psychological resilience.

Roger F.Peters
March 2001

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