A New Approach to Stress Management

Stress is often portrayed in the media as the bane of modern life, a source of many of our ills and difficulties. There is no doubt that excessive stress is not good for us and can affect both our mental and physical well-being.

Stress management is a set of skills used to reduce stress in our daily life.  A recent study by Dr. Epstein sheds new light on this concept.

Dr. Epstein looked at different skill sets associated with stress management. These skills are commonly taught in courses, coaching or psychotherapy. Dr. Epstein looked at three broad sets of skills.

1 .Preventing and managing the sources of stress. This includes proper organization of home and work space, good time management, and effective prioritization and planning of tasks.

Some of these skills are reactive, for example, I have just noticed how stressful overstuffed and disorganized my filing cabinet is. Some skills are proactive such as buying Christmas presents early thus avoiding last minute stress and long lines.

2. Relaxation skills. These skills are what many of us tend to think about as stress management tools. These include practices such as meditation Yoga and guided imagery

3. Cognitive coping skills. These include Reframing situations and control of irrational thought patterns.

To the surprise of the investigator, the most useful coping skills were those mentioned in the first category. Good organization, planning, and time management had the most benefit. The second category, of relaxation techniques, although useful, had less of an impact. Cognitive coping skills ranked last. Cognitive skills are very helpful when coping with depression but apparently less effective when dealing with stress.

Dr Epstein’s study shows that while it is nice to do yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques, if you really want to manage your stress,  go back to basics. Organizing your physical environment, managing your time and prioritizing your tasks are all straightforward tools to reduce stress.

Managing your physical environment means that the pile of papers on your desk, the one next to the three coffee cups, needs to go. You need adequate storage for you papers and other things.

Better management of time entails making realistic estimates of what you can and cannot do, so you will not stress yourself later.

Managing priorities can best be done with a good old “to do list”.  The list can be High-Tech or simple low-Tech pen and paper, as long as it lists all your tasks, and assigns priority to each. If you do your tasks according to their priorities, you will get ahead in your work. Plan your day in the morning. This way you will be more productive. Try and plan ahead for a week, a month, even a year.

After you have done all of these, you will probably have a time to do yoga. (And I am all for it…)

People that report better stress management skills, report feeling lower levels of stress, being happier, and being more productive and successful professionally. The good news is that these skills can be learned.

Adapted from Scientific American Mind October 2011, 31-35

Dr Epstein actually defined four types of stress management skills. Since two of them overlap to a large degree, I grouped them under one heading.


Breathing Exercises and Mental Health

The art of breathing exercises is an underutilized discipline that can contribute to your well being. From my clinical experience, breathing exercises are helpful in   decreasing symptoms of depression,  anxiety, panic attacks, and  improving concentration. They are a great tool for stress management in your life, if you go through tough times or life transitions.

Most breathing exercises come from Pranayama  – a fundamental part of Yoga. The basic book on this subject  is  Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing by Ayengar, a renown Yoga teacher. From these exercises,  “Alternate breathing”  is   the most beneficial  one for people that suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, according to my professional experience.

Most Yoga teachers do not teach breathing exercises in regular yoga classes, so you may need to ask for a private lesson. If you have never done it before, It is  advisable to learn under guidance.  If you have any medical condition, you may want to consult your health practitioner.

I know that there are similar exercises in martial arts. but I have not explored those. You may want to check with a local martial art teacher.


Social Anxiety (Social Phobia)

Managing Social Anxiety

Social anxiety can reduce you quality of life, not let you achieve your full potential, and ultimately lead to depression. What results is a vicious cycle – the more anxious you are, the more barriers you will encounter in your life, the more depressed you become, which ultimately contribute to your anxiety. I recommend this self-help book. It is part of a series published by Oxford University Press. All the books adhere to cognitive-behavioral approach. They come in pairs – one for the client, one for the therapists. All those I have seen so far, were excellent. If you read this book, and work along its guideline, you may not even need to see me. And if you do, it will shorten the treatment and make my work easier.