Your Personal Prescription
for Stress Relief

by Sandra Gordon

You’re shivering in a flimsy gown in the doctor’s office, sweating like an athlete before a meeting with the boss. If only you could relax (and regulate your body temperature) everything would be fine. You close your eyes and try to picture yourself at the beach house you rented last summer. No luck. You don’t ‘see’ anything and actually tense up more. If that’s likely to be your reaction when you’re trying to de-stress, don’t give up. “Relaxation is very individual,” says Jon Seskevich, a stress- and pain-management educator at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. In fact, many of us fall into one of four basic stress types, says Seskevich. Read on to determine which type you are—and how to customize your stress-busting routine based on your personality.

Type 1 - The Monitor

The Monitor’s M.O. is control. You like to live in the present at all times and ask a lot of questions during stressful situations. Despite having an active imagination, you find it nearly impossible to mentally get away from the source of stress.

You Know You’re One If... In the doctor or the dentist’s office, you keep your eyes open and stay focused on what’s going on around you. You tend to inquire about every little poke and prod. (“Umm...now what are you doing?”)

If asked to imagine yourself walking through a peaceful forest, you either get a blank screen or can’t focus on the image for more than a few seconds.

You’re filled with ‘what-ifs’ when under stress. What if you get in a car accident over the weekend and miss your Monday deadline? What if you trip when you’re walking down the aisle at your best friend’s wedding? “The Monitor’s mind can be her worst enemy when it comes to relaxing,” says Patricia McWhorter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Stress Perscription: Physical relaxation techniques such as belly breathing (breathing from the depths of your diaphragm) work best. During stressful situations, like at the dermatologist’s office where you’re faced with a scalpel inches from your nose, monitor your breathing by placing your hand on your abdomen and watching it rise and fall in sync with each breath. Like Lamaze during childbirth, belly breathing distracts you from the event at hand. It also helps counteract the quick, shallow chest breathing associated with stress. As a result, it lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and sustains the amount of oxygen in your blood—all of which help short-circuit the release of fight-or-flight hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), noradrenaline and cortisol throughout the body, says Seskevich.

Monitors also benefit by fulfilling their need for information and control. If you’re diagnosed with a medical condition, for example, calm yourself by reading up on it. Have to make a speech? Practice, practice, practice.

Type 2 - The Distracter

If you’re a Distracter, you would rather stick your head in the sand and not know the details. You find it easy to mentally escape.

You Know You’re One If... During a medical procedure, you maintain a ‘let-me-know-when-it’s-over’ mindset. “You’re inclined to say, “Just give me the big picture” or “Don’t tell me,” says Carol Goldberg, Ph.D., a New York-based clinical psychologist and president of Getting Ahead Programs, which specializes in stress-management and wellness workshops.

During a choppy airplane ride, you find it easy to sleep or escape into a good book. You also want to be spared the pilot’s play-by-play on the PA system.

When your boss drops yet another project on your desk, you take a quick mental time-out and imagine yourself sipping margaritas on the veranda at sunset.

Stress Prescription: If this sounds like you, milk your talents for creative visualization. Imagine yourself somewhere better during trying times, but don’t focus on just any mental image. “Try different scenarios and pick one you truly find relaxing,” says Seskevich. Keep engaging reading material and your favorite DVDs on hand for instant escapism.

“Focus on an interesting object in the room or a complex and meaningful thought, something that gets your mind involved,” suggests C. David Jenkins, Ph.D., adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Turn to music. Concentrate on the lyrics, or remember a time or a place associated with the song or artist. For stress relief on the go, tote an iPod or keep your car’s CD player stocked with tunes that soothe you.

Type 3 - The Spiritually Inclined

You feel a reverent connection to the universe. Whether or not you participate in any organized religion, you believe that there is a higher power that gives you direction in your life and protects you.

You Know You’re One If... Repeating a prayer or a spiritual mantra during anxious times calms and comforts you.

You feel a deep sense of the sacredness of all things, like the splendor of a spring day or the divinity of a sunset.

You wouldn’t hurt a fly. Literally.

Stress Prescription: Repeating a short spiritual concentration phrase such as “the Lord is my shepherd,” or “God is with me” is probably your best antidote for stress. (Secular mantras such as “be calm,” or “relaxed mind, calm body” do nothing for you.) But again, be picky. “Choose a phrase that resonates with you,” says Seskevich.

For general stress relief, McWhorter suggests you “connect with nature. Go for a leisurely walk in the park or sit by a river and watch the sunset.” If you don’t already, try attending religious services every so often. “You will probably be comforted by the hymns, or simply the feeling of connection with others,” says Jenkins.

Other options: Listening to spiritually themed yoga and meditation CDs that use outdoor imagery or carrying something with you that evokes a feeling of solace and protection, such as the rosary or even a photo of a nature scene. But don’t try to force it, cautions McWhorter. “Spirituality is highly individual. You need to find something simple that connects you.” Repeat your mantra to yourself a few times or pull out the photo and look at it just as your stress level begins to build—like when your boss calls you on the carpet or your basement floods.

Type 4 - The Fidgeter

The Fidgeter needs to do some form of exercise to find even marginal stress relief.”Physically passive relaxation techniques, such as creative visualization and meditation, often don’t work,” says Jason Kornrich, Ph.D., a psychologist at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, New York.

You Know You’re One If... You’ve got energy to burn. The very thought of sitting still through a manicure drives you batty.

You feel destressed after exercise, even though during your workout your mind wanders—to the memo you didn’t write, your outfit for dinner with your potential in-laws, whether the cat is due for shots.
You’re a master at multitasking—you put on your make-up during your morning commute while chatting on your cell phone and sipping a latte.

Stress Prescription: Fidgeters need to engage body and mind for a deep sense of mental and physical relaxation. Your best bet: a walking meditation, where you concentrate on feeling your feet touch the ground with each step and silently repeat a soothing phrase such as “easy does it.” This exercise, says Seskevich, helps you “focus your mind in the present moment.” Otherwise, you’re apt to walk and worry and deprive yourself of that much-needed mental break.

Exercise in general is also beneficial, but it’s important to choose an activity that demands your undivided attention. Team sports, dance classes or terrain-challenging mountain biking work well.

For stressful moments when exercise is definitely not an option, “try progressive muscle relaxation,” suggests John Harvey, Ph.D., author of Total Relaxation. To do this, simply tighten or contract the muscles in one area of your body and hold for five or more seconds. Then release the muscles and move on to the next area.

Universal Destressers

Deep diaphragmatic breathing: Though ideal for Monitors, oxygenated belly breaths can also be a stress saver for Distracters, the Spiritually Inclined and Fidgeters. “When you’re taking long, deep breaths, you interrupt the physiological response of anxiety, which is to breathe shallowly,” says Douglas A. Jones, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

Seek support: When you’re lying in bed or trying to relax in the dentist’s chair, “your shoulders can still be hunched, your fists clenched,” says Seskevich. This can sabotage your relaxation efforts. To untense those muscles, let the bed or chair support your weight by telling yourself to “feel the bed” (or the chair) beneath you, says Seskevich. You’ll be surprised by how good this paradigm shift feels.

Get physically fit: Even if you’re not a Fidgeter, there’s no better way to burn off steam (not to mention calories!) than a workout. In fact, exercise can also physiologically prepare you for a more passive relaxation technique, such as creative visualization or meditating while using a calming mantra. “Plus, it releases those nice endorphins,” says psychologist Patricia McWhorter. •

from the November-December 2006 issue

The Monitor's mind can be her worst enemy when it comes to relaxing.
The Fidgeter needs some form of exercise to find even marginal stress relief.