2 October 2002

Stress and Relaxation

Équipe -Pose ta question!-

Is life speeding up? It seems like we need to do more and more just to keep up. There’s always new technology to learn about, there’s loads of school work, homework, exams, training and Uni work to complete to get a good job. Then there’s job-hunting, working, making ends meet, relationships with friends, partners and family. Life can all get pretty heavy at times. So what’s the answer? Do we drop out of society? Or find ways to make it work better for us? This topic is about stress, how to recognise it and how to stay on top.


First of all we all have stress in our lives. It’s normal. Stress is something we need to survive. Imagine standing under a gum tree after a windy, rainy night and suddenly hearing a crrraack! from above. Looking up you realise that a gum tree limb right above your head is about to drop. Your response is made up of thought (danger! I’m about to be flattened), physical responses (heart beats faster, breathing is quicker, blood rushes through your body) and a reaction (I’m outta here).

If the tree limb falling didn’t stress you at all, you wouldn’t bother to move out of the way. (Splat!) A certain amount of stress gets you going and motivates you to do things. Stress is simply our responses and reactions to a stressor (something stressful). The tree limb falling was the stressor in our last example. The response was for the mind to think and the body to get ready. The reaction was to run for your life.

Too Much Stress
So stress is OK, stress is normal. Usually when people talk about being stressed it means stress levels are too high or the stress goes on too long to cope well. What we all need is enough skills to be able to cope with different levels of stress. This is our coping capacity. When the stress in our lives become greater than our individual coping capacity we can become ill from stress. It’s like a scale that needs to balance.

When stress outweighs the coping capacity, people say things like they’re getting stressed, or stressed out or stressed to the max.

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Sometimes there is pressure around us from other people to keep going, people may lead us to believe we’re weak if we say we’re feeling stressed. This isn’t true – we all get stressed – we just need new ways to deal with it or we might need to make changes to our lifestyles.



We’re all different and we’ve all learnt to respond differently to situations that make us feel angry or worried or overloaded. This means that some people will become highly stressed about things that don’t worry other people like

  • exams
  • arguments
  • homework
  • being harassed
  • being left out of a group,
  • a new school
  • being stuck in traffic
  • getting married
  • having a baby
  • moving out of home
  • going to the dentist,
  • a job interview or
  • taking on a new responsibility.

It’s different for everyone but some things get all people highly stressed – things like a family breakdown, a death of someone close, going to gaol, too many responsibilities or being a victim of violent crime. Crises like being around when there is a bushfire, a cyclone, an earthquake or living through a drought (especially for country people) are stressful for everyone.



We have signs that tell us that we’re over-stressed. That’s the time to deal with it. If we don’t deal with it we can eventually become quite ill. Some people say that high stress over a long time and not dealing with it contribute to high blood pressure, cancer and heart attacks.

It is important to acknowledge those first signs. If we try to pretend to ourselves that it isn’t having an effect on us and keep on pretending for too long, we get into the stage where our bodies send us strong messages to stop. If we don’t have some ways to deal with stress we can become quite ill.

The message could be:

  • physical exhaustion
  • loss of self-confidence
  • depression
  • hair loss
  • skin rashes.



Our coping skills are something we’ve learnt, usually from parents. Because it is a learnt thing, this means that we can all learn and take on new coping skills to increase our coping capacity and deal with stress better.

The first step is to recognise the signs your body gives you when you’re feeling stressed and then listen to the signs.

Recognising Signs Of Stress (The Body’s Responses)
It’s important to acknowledge the first signs of stress for yourself and deal with it. If you don’t you can become ill. What are the signs for you that you’re stressed? High stress levels feel different for everyone. Some people get a sore neck and back, headaches and can’t sleep. Other people feel moody, anxious, have butterflies in the stomach and can’t think clearly. Some of the physical signs or feelings in your body might be:

  • headaches
  • feeling sick
  • sore muscles
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • indigestion
  • can’t sleep
  • lose interest in sex
  • can’t concentrate
  • heart beats faster.

Some of the feeling signs could be

  • nervousness
  • anxiety
  • sadness
  • aggression and anger
  • tiredness
  • tension.

Think about those kinds of signs for you. Think of a time that was stressful for you, it might have been an exam or an disagreement with a friend or maybe you needed to tell someone something really important and didn’t know how they’d react. Try and remember how your body felt. Did you have butterflies in the tummy before the exam? Did you get a headache when arguing? Did you find it hard to sleep before telling that person the news? Stop now and have a think about how it felt for you. Perhaps you could write those signs down so you’ll remember later.

Dealing With Stress (Reactions)
How did you deal with the stress in the situation you thought about before? Was it helpful? Was there another situation where you dealt with stress really well? Perhaps you could write those strategies down to remember for times you need them. There are many choices in the way that you can deal with stress. Talk to friends about good ways they use to deal with stress to increase your choices.

Here are some choices that might be useful for you.

1    Positive Self Talk
Positive Self Talk helps you tap into your inner strengths. We all have inner strengths. Positive Self Talk is about using your mind in the way you want to help yourself. It helps us to decide how we’ll react to stress. When we do the opposite (negative thinking) we create more stress for ourselves. Here are some ways to use Positive Self Talk.

  • Think about a positive statement you can tell yourself when you’re feeling signs of stress (examples are “I feel relaxed and calm” or “I feel peaceful” or “no-one can annoy me”).
  • Tell yourself positive statements every day (examples: “I am good at ….”, “I have inner strength”, “I have true beauty within”, “all is well”, “I feel peaceful now”).
  • Picture seeing yourself in a positive situation – one that you want to move towards (eg see yourself doing that school test and being relaxed about it and doing well, picture the teacher reading your test and being impressed on how well you did).
  • Remind yourself of things you’ve done well in the past (I did well on that school project last year, this means I can do it again).
  • Look at the big picture – will it really matter in 5 years? will the world stop turning if it does/doesn’t happen?
  • Work on what you can control, accept the rest and let it go.
  • You can even make a tape of your own voice saying positive, relaxing, supportive things.

2    Relaxation
What do you find relaxing? Is it dancing, art, meditation, fishing, going for a walk with friends, reading a book, listening to music, shopping, a gym work out, talking to a friend or playing sport? Think about things you can do that relax you and find ways to build them into your weekly routine. This is a way both to prevent stress and to deal with stress.

There are other ways to relax and unwind. How about a massage? You could give a friend a neck and shoulder massage or a hand massage and ask for one back. Perhaps a yoga or tai chi class is for you.  Herbal teas like chamomile can help, so can aromatherapy oils like lavender oil or a warm bath.

There are quick relaxation techniques that take just a few minutes. You can use these in may places for example taking a few minutes to relax in the middle of an exam if you find yourself getting stressed and not thinking clearly.

  • Deep breathing – breathe in through the nose and let the air fill the bottom of your lungs first, breathe right down to your stomach, then breathe out slowly, concentrating on letting the muscles of your body relax.
  • Focus breathing – breathe in through the nose and as you breathe out say a positive statement to yourself like relax or calm down.
  • Stretching – stretch out muscles, reach the arms above the head and stretch or just stretch whatever part of the body you feel needs it.
  • Visualisation – this is where you picture a pleasant place and use slow breathing through the nose – you can make the place anywhere you want to and you can change anything in the picture to see, feel, sound or smell just as you wish.

3    Stress Relieving Relaxation
This kind of relaxation takes a little longer. You start by sitting or lying down comfortably. A quiet place or relaxing music to listen to is nice. Close your eyes. Tighten then relax your muscles in order, for example start at the feet, work your way up through the legs, the middle, you chest and face muscles. One at a time scrunch each set of muscles up tightly for about 30 seconds then let them go loose. Feel which parts of your body are tight and need more work. You can get tapes to help you do this. This is also good to help you feel the difference between when you are relaxed and when you are tense. This raises your awareness of when you’re getting tense and stressed.

4    Meditation
There are various ways to meditate. You can learn by listening to meditation tapes and CDs, by going to a meditation class or by learning from a friend. Or you could teach yourself – try this simple meditation. If any thoughts or noises enter your mind, notice them, let them go and gently return to your meditation.

  • Prepare by getting comfortable and becoming aware of your breathing.
  • Start to count after each breath. Breathe in, breathe out, one, breathe in, breathe out two ……. up to ten then start again. If you lose count go back to one. Just do this for a few minutes. Later you might want to do it for longer and concentrate more and more on your breathing and the feel of your breath going into and out of your body.

5    Exercise
Many people find physical activity helps burn up some of that stress. It can be fun too.

6    A Balanced Life Style
This is another key to coping well. Make time for:

  • yourself – rest, relaxation, thinking time, exercise, and HEALTHY EATING
  • your relationships
  • your social life
  • your spiritual needs (this could be religion, nature or whatever is right for you)
  • as well as work or study.

To do all this you need to:

  • manage your time, eg make lists, prioritise – there are many books around on time management, or friends may be able to help you with this
  • take time out to enjoy your life
  • set goals and work towards them – smaller goals are important to have as well as longer term goals
  • at work or study keep in mind that you can only do so much, that you should take regular breaks
  • if it’s all getting too much, ask for support -talk to a friend or family member or someone supportive at work, school, Uni or college.

    Above all keep your sense of humour.

7    Dealing With Anger
Anger can lead to stress. You might try something physical like going for a run or a bike ride. Some people write letters and put in everything they feel angry about, then burn them. Other people turn the music up loud and say out loud whatever it is they’d really like to tell someone. It’s OK, in fact it’s good, to express anger. We all get angry. We can choose what we do about it and how we express it. Do what’s right for you as long as you don’t hurt anyone or anything.

8    Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking
Some people try drugs, like alcohol (see our topic on ALCOHOL) and they smoke more. This is  likely to be more harmful than helpful when you consider the health risks. Importantly, they won’t change whatever is causing the stress. Sometimes doctors prescribe medication like antidepressants for a short time. This could help but on its own doesn’t change whatever is causing the stress. It’s important to look at the causes and ways to deal with the causes whether that be increasing your own coping capacities or making changes to your life style.

9    Changing Your Life
Sometimes changes in your life are the only way to really reduce stress. If it’s hard to decide how to do that, talk to a trusted friend. You could go to counselling to find ways to make changes. It might mean that you do less for now. For example if you’re studying full time and working and have a child or children and have a relationship and a social life you may need to cut down somewhere, or cut down a bit everywhere.

Note: These topics can give you some practical suggestions and information about health and illness. It is important to see your doctor or health professional for information specific to a health concern you may have about yourself.

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