Essential Tools to Manage Stress through Mindfulness, Relaxation, and Exercise
It is not uncommon for people to feel that things outside themselves are the source of their stress- work, bills, traffic, kids, etc. However, stress is really about how people see things, how they interpret them, and what they say to themselves. Some of the most intense stress is experienced when people have big, impulsive, and usually negative reactions to what, in retrospect, was something small. This is particularly true when their sense of control is threatened in some way. When you have a chronic illness or disability that prevents you from doing what you want to do, you can feel even less control. Many people react to stress by trying to distance themselves from their stress through escape and avoidance. Although these strategies might reduce the intensity of stress in the short-term, they are not effective in the long run and the problems just tend to multiply.
Stress is not just a mental battle. Stress can have severe physical consequences as well, ranging from poor and interrupted sleep to muscle tightness and fatigue. These and many others byproducts of stress can increase the already cumbersome symptom of fatigue.
Effective stress management is about changing your relationship to your problems, your stress, your body, and your mind. A primary goal in stress reduction is having access to a variety of tools- as well as the skills and mindset to utilize them effectively. Picture yourself wearing a tool belt. Do you want 6 hammers in this belt, or do you want 6 different tools so you can choose the tool that best fits the situation, while having several others as backup? To develop these adaptable skills, practice with different tools in different stressful situations… and try new ones even if you feel uncomfortable. Remember that giving yourself a choice is stress-reducing in and of itself, and following through with your plan to practice will add to your self-confidence and self-efficacy.
There are many effective stress management strategies, including regular physical exercise, organizational skills, SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based), relaxation exercises (deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, body scan, guided imagery, etc.), as well as many forms of mindfulness.
Mindfulness makes use of three tools that are available to you 24/7: your mind, your body, and your breath. By focusing your attention on what you’re experiencing from moment to moment without judging your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and environment, mindfulness will help your mind “wander off,” and, in turn, will guide your attention back to your focus (e.g., your body or your breath) in a kind and gentle manner, devoid of criticism or judgement. Many people practice a combination of formal and informal mindfulness. Like many things in life, variety inherently reaps benefits.
Formal mindfulness involves setting aside a specific amount of time every day to sit or lie quietly, while focusing on breathing, another physical sensation, an object, a word, or an image. This practice is often referred to as meditation. Informal mindfulness comes in many forms that share a common focus: paying attention without judgement to everyday routine activities, such as breathing, brushing your teeth, bathing, answering the phone, stopping at a red light, or eating. It is also recommended that activities be done slowly, one task at a time. Multitasking really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Research and experience has shown that mindfulness is particularly helpful to people experiencing a chronic illness or disability. In the case of MS, mindfulness has been associated with improvements in pain management, fatigue, cognitive functioning (e.g., attention, concentration, and information processing), and mood. Practice is the backbone of learning how to make effective use of these stress-reducing tools and skills. Keep in mind that few (if any) of these require special equipment, club membership, or prescription.
Stress in our lives won’t go away and can actually be beneficial to some degree. Everyone knows that at its most primitive, the “flight or fight” response of stress has helped people survive since the dawn of time. Running away from daily stressors is not an option. Implementing strategies to stay and “fight”- or at least deal with- our stressors are necessary for managing stress and turning it into something productive.
However, you have to make sure that you are not adding to the stress by trying to fight it! We all know that MS exaggerates stress and stress exaggerates MS. This can lead to a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, or at least managed, with the mind AND the body.
It is well-proven that exercise plays a key role in the mind-body connection and can be very effective in combatting stress. Because everyone’s minds and bodies are different, developing an individualized program with exercises and activities that work best for you is essential. Listening to your body is essential. Setting realistic goals is essential.
NONE of this needs to be done alone. Surround yourself with supportive family, friends, and healthcare professionals to guide, encourage, and counsel you. The goal is to determine what works best for YOU. Because this disease is unique to each person, your strategies and regimen must be individually tailored. This may include exercising with an MS group by yourself or with your support partner. It may include time in a gym or in the quiet, convenient space of your home. Aquatic exercises or classes may work for one person, while another chooses to walk or bike outside (with modifications as needed).
Problem solving, combined with flexibility and the ability to “listen to your body,” will help minimize stress and maximize results. The mind and body can be a winning team in the management of stress related to MS!
From Jon Kabat-Zinn: A book: Full Catastrophy Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (1990 and 2013).
CDs/Tapes/Apps: Three series of practice CDs, Guided Mindfulness Medication available at www.mindfulnesscds.com.
From Belleruth Naparstek: CDs and tapes on guided imagery for multiple conditions and topics including stress sleep, pain, depression and specifically MS: A Meditation To Help You with MS available from Health Journeys.