Stressing the Positive: Steps to Harness and Reduce Stress (Part 1 of 2)

By Lt. Jesse Locke, clinical psychologist, Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center

Plebes carry a modified telephone pole during the log PT station of Sea Trials, the capstone training exercise for Naval Academy freshmen. The plebes navigate physical and mental challenges, ranging from obstacle courses, long-distance group runs, damage control scenarios, and water training to challenge them individually and as a team. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Runge)
Plebes carry a modified telephone pole during the log PT station of Sea Trials, the capstone training exercise for Naval Academy freshmen. The plebes navigate physical and mental challenges, ranging from obstacle courses, long-distance group runs, damage control scenarios, and water training to challenge them individually and as a team. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Runge)

Stress and worry are not all bad! Yes, stress and worry actually have some benefits. Stress helps you feel energized and alert, and can motivate you to work harder and longer. Worry helps you stay focused on your problems long enough to allow you to come up with solutions. It also shows you and those around you that you really care for something or someone.

That being said, there is a fine line between just enough and too much stress. Knowing how stress can work for you may help you better understand when your stress has moved from helpful to problematic. It also can give you more control over your stress, so that it can work for you and not against you.

Follow these six practices and start making your stress and worry work with (not against) you:

1) Exercise
2) Take deep breaths throughout the day
3) Practice acceptance or “letting go of what you can’t change/control.
4) Reduce negative thoughts
5) Sleep
6) Get help if you need it

1. Exercise is the best medicine: Researchers have consistently demonstrated (since 1999) that regular exercise is as effective as taking antidepressant medications AND these benefits last! This is because when you exercise your body releases chemicals that help you feel good (without the negative side effects). Beyond the biological, exercise has a number of other benefits that can improve the overall quality of your life including:

  • Increased Confidence. Most people who workout have goals for themselves. Meeting these goals, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting into shape can also make you feel better about how you look.
  • Distracting Yourself from Stress. Exercise is a great distraction. It can interrupt the spiral of negative thoughts that feed stress and leave you in a more positive mood post workout.
  • Being Social. You can join a gym and go with a friend, find a running/biking group or softball league, or join a crossfit gym (which offers an instant community). A quick Internet search for “recreational sports meetups” and the city you are near will give you many options.
  • Healthy Coping. Working out and being active is MUCH healthier than drinking alcohol, smoking, or dwelling endlessly on problems. Get out and enjoy your life!
    Sailors assigned to Southwest Regional Maintenance Center perform the two-minute push-up test as part of the fiscal 2013 cycle one Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA). The PFA is a semiannual fitness test that ensures Sailors maintain a level of physical fitness required to support the Navy’s overall mission readiness. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Christopher Pratt/Released)
    Sailors assigned to Southwest Regional Maintenance Center perform the two-minute push-up test as part of the fiscal 2013 cycle one Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA). The PFA is a semiannual fitness test that ensures Sailors maintain a level of physical fitness required to support the Navy’s overall mission readiness. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Christopher Pratt/Released)

2. Take deep breaths through the day: This might sound cliché, but taking SLOW DEEP BREATHS throughout the day has profound benefits. Why do you think martial arts and yoga focus on breath? It’s no accident. Also, if you are heated and frustrated (which is a perfect time to breathe) deep breathing will not make you feel instantly calm. However, if you stick with it over time deep breaths can turn down the volume on the stress level, allowing you to think more clearly and calm down quicker. The key is to stick with it! Here are the basics:

  • Take a slow and full breath in through your nose, expanding your lungs to capacity, which will push the bottom of your stomach (your diaphragm) all the way out.
  • Once your lungs are full (and I mean really REALLY full), slowly exhale through either your mouth or nose (at a pace where you are not losing your breath).
  • REPEAT….and REPEAT…and REPEAT.
  • Stick with it!!!!!

3. Practice ACCEPTANCE – “letting go of what you can’t control”: Learn to understand and accept how things are in reality. Often we expect things that are unrealistic. Having unrealistic expectations sets us up to feel frustrated and angry when things don’t go according to plan. On the other hand, accepting reality helps take the edge off the intensity of our frustration. This does not mean that we have to like or enjoy how things really are, but it does mean that we understand that things happen that are out of our control.

  • It is helpful to tell yourself a neutral statement like, “it is what it is,” “go with the flow,” or “take it one day at a time.” The beauty is that these statements don’t have to be specific to the situation. They can be general and still work.

Editor’s note: Lt. Locke is a licensed clinical psychologist in the U.S. Navy. He holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology as well as a master’s degree in sport psychology. He currently works in Recruit Mental Health for the CAPT. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center and is the Division Officer for the Psychological Resiliency and Outreach program at Recruit Training Command.

Part two will publish June 28.