A Psychologist’s 3 Step Guide to Managing Stress


A Psychologist’s 3 Step Guide to Managing Stress

Stress affects us daily, and if left unmanaged, can lead to a whole range of difficulties such as tension headaches, premature aging, and anxiety disorders.[1] But how exactly do we define stress and what happens when we are feeling stressed?

In his seminal text, The Stress of Life, Hans Selye proposed that stress should be conceptualized in two parts: a stressor and a stress response.[2] A stressor is any stressful event or change to our routine. It could be positive (e.g., wedding, holiday, new role at work, etc.) or negative (e.g., an unexpected work deadline or a child’s tantrum, etc.). A stress response is our body and mind’s varied response to a stressor.

When we experience stress, our central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) kicks into action. Our brain sends signals to our body to prepare for action and a number of physical changes can be seen. For example, our muscle tense, our breathing rate increases, and we switch into a more primitive style of thinking.

The best thing about stress management is that it’s free, can be used in pretty much all situations, and can lead to a whole range of psychological benefits.[3] Here are my three favourite, research-based stress management tips:

1. Controlled Breathing

Controlled breathing is a technique that is used to target an increased breathing rate. This one feels pretty silly to practice in front of people, so find a quiet space while you are learning.

To practice controlled breathing:

  • Sit in a comfortable upright position.
  • Take a deep breath in for four seconds (making sure you can feel the air reach right into your belly).
  • Hold your breath for two seconds.
  • Breathe out for four seconds.
  • Repeat the sequence for two minutes.

Treat this technique as your medicine for stress. Take it everyday for two weeks. After two weeks, the technique should be familiar and you will be ready to practice it in social situations without anyone knowing that you’re de-stressing. Easy.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation targets muscle tension that we experience while feeling stressed. The benefits of progressive muscle relaxation are well documented in scientific literature. For example, a 2015 study by Chellew et al.[4] found that after progressive muscle relaxation training, their participants reported lower levels of stress than before their training. Furthermore, a sample of participants’ saliva content showed significantly lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

This is how you practise progressive muscle relaxation:

  • Sit or lay down in a comfortable position.
  • Curl your toes in and hold the tension as tightly as possible for a count of three. Slowly and carefully release the tension, letting your toes drop to the ground.
  • Tense the muscles in your calves by pulling your toes back towards your knees. Hold the tension as tightly as possible for the count of three. Slowly and carefully release the tension.

Repeat this process for the following muscle groups:

  • Thighs
  • Buttocks
  • Stomach
  • Hands and fingers
  • Forearms
  • Upper arms
  • Shoulders
  • Face (Squish the muscle into a silly face to do this.)

Repeat the exercise twice a day, for a period of two weeks. Next, begin to integrate this exercise into your daily life when stressful situations arise. This exercise could easily be performed at your work desk or during the next peak-hour traffic jam.

3. Cognitive Defusion

When under stress, the brain’s intelligent, analytic part shuts down and the emotional center (the amygdala) fires up.[5] When the amygdala is active, our thinking about ourselves, others, and the world can become distorted.

Cognitive defusion targets this unhelpful style of thinking through a process called “metacognition” or “thinking about thinking.” This technique involves detaching yourself from your thoughts and observing them as if you were an outsider.

Harris recommends a number of strategies to practice this technique[6]:

  • When you notice yourself having stressful thoughts (e.g., “I’ll never get all of this done in time” or “I’m a failure if I don’t complete this task”), repeat the thought aloud over and over again until it has no meaning.
  • Write down “I’m having the thought that__________,” and then write the thought. Try writing the thought in different ways, some big and some small.
  • Try singing the thought in a silly way in your head (or aloud). The sillier the voice, the better.
  • Tell someone what you are thinking. Just saying it aloud will make the thought seem less significant and the person will most likely help you see a case against your thought.

Remember, cognitive defusion is all about reminding yourself that you are having stressful thoughts and managing those thoughts in a helpful way. Like any technique, practice is key so use this technique whenever you notice yourself thinking in a black-and-white style.

If problems with stress persist after regular practice of these techniques, consider consulting your primary physician or naturopathic doctor for a referral to a mental health professional who can help develop a stress management plan tailored to your needs.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I am a guest blogger for American College of Healthcare Sciences, the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are my own. This blog may contain affiliate links. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.

[1] Brannon. L., & Feist, J. (2007). Health psychology: An introduction to behaviour and health (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

[2] Seyle, H. (1976). The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[3] Brannon. L., & Feist, J. (2007). Health psychology: An introduction to behaviour and health (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

[4] Chellew, K., Evans, P., Fornes-Vives, J., Perez, G., & Garcia-Banda, G. (2015). The effect of progressive muscle relaxation on daily cortisol secretion. Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, 18(5). doi: 10.3109/10253890.2015.1053454

[5] Brannon. L., & Feist, J. (2007). Health psychology: An introduction to behaviour and health (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

[6] Harris, R. (2009, October). Mindfulness without meditation. Retrieved from https://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Mindfulness_without_meditation_–_Russ_Harris_–_HCPJ_Oct_09.pdf