Staying Calm in Stressful Situations: Tricks from the Trenches

If you were to sit down and talk with a military veteran, an enlisted officer, or a family member, you will soon discover that dealing with high amounts of stress in their everyday life is a pretty commonplace. Words such as “post-traumatic stress disorder” and “stress-related illness” are not words that are bantered about; they are real conditions and situations that these people cope with on a moment to moment basis.

And they are not the only ones. More and more people, from many different walks of life have to learn how to cope and deal with increased levels of chronic stress. Whether the stress you feel comes from a demanding job, a chaotic family life, or something in between, learning how to remain calm in a stressful situation is paramount to mental health and well being.

Just like the body needs protection from the elements, the mind needs a type of mental armor or protection. According to Dr. Amishi Jha of the University of Pennsylvania, research has shown that it is possible to cushion yourself against stress, and those tactics used by military personnel can often work just as effectively with everyday civilians. Here are a few of the most effective.

Meditation

Despite its connotation as being a new-age type of thing, meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and in a number of different ways. Plus, it doesn’t need to have any spiritual connotations associated with it. Practicing a form of mindfulness meditation can boost stress resilience, help to calm a person’s thought process and nerves, and help to train you to live in the moment instead of agonizing about the future. It was shown, for example that after eight weeks of meditating, Marines became less reactive to the stresses in their lives, and became more alert and had better memory retention.

Recognizing Your Knee Jerk Reactions

Another effective way to deal with stressful situations is to train your body and your mind to react differently to the common stressors that you experience. Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a great way to train you to not react to the stressor in the same way. Methods often used include such things as exposure therapy, where people relive past experiences in small dosages under the watchful supervision of a therapist until memories become less traumatic.

While these intensive visualization exercises should only be performed under the direction of a trained and licensed professional, a less intense form, or practicing feeling stressed is an effective way to help train you how to cope with a stressful situation. By knowing how your body and mind will react, you can more effectively alter your reaction to a more positive one.

For example, try imagining yourself in a tense situation, such as your commute to work. See if you can imagine the tension that you commonly feel. Then write out the factors contributing to the situation at hand.

  1. If I don’t leave by 7:00 am I will be late
  2. Traffic is really congested during this time of day. I can sit in the traffic for at least an hour.
  3. There’s nothing good on the radio that time of morning.

Now consider how you can change the amount of tension that you are feeling. For example, if there is nothing on the radio, perhaps bringing one of your hour long audio books might be a good distraction. This thought exercise accomplishes two different things. First, it makes you realize that the stress you are feeling can be managed. Second, it provides you with a specific way to help reduce the impact of the stress in that situation. This is just one of the methods used by CBT, and if you are interested in trying other ones, the best course of action is to contact a certified practitioner through the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists at www.nacbt.org.

While mental exercises like the ones described above are quite effective in reducing the level of stress that you feel physical exercise is also a great way to alleviate stress as well. In addition, regular exercise, such as bike riding can be a great way to increase muscle tone, lower your blood pressure, and increase your respiratory health. All of which can greatly help in managing your body’s reaction to a stressful situation. While any kind of regular exercise has its benefits, studies have shown that regular exercise outside, such as a bike ride, going for a hike, or even playing a game of softball with your friends are more effective at reducing stress. It has been shown that a combination of activity, fresh air, and friends often help a person gain great strides in handling their stress.

Learning the skills needed to cope in a stressful situation can become an asset to you in nearly every situation. There are a number of different ways, and some of the most effective have been described here.

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