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Counselling Centre

Resources - Strategies for stress management

Stress is cumulative over time and situations. Management of stress can be achieved by restructuring the stressor, your thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. Here is a collection of strategies others have found to be helpful in reducing their stress. You might find one or two will work well for you.

Physical Strategies (What you feel)

Conscious physical relaxation

Specific tension reducing exercises: Deep Muscle Relaxation (reduction of physical tension by focusing on major muscle groups and relaxing them), Yoga, Tai Chi, massage, herbal/epsom baths, etc.

Watch your diet

Especially caffeine intake (coffee, tea, chocolate, etc., which will raise your stress level.) A well balanced diet will improve your ability to cope. Reduce caffeine intake during stressful times.

Fitness and exercise

Regular exercise can help you in a number of ways:

  • If you're in good physical shape you are better able to tolerate anxiety
  • Physical exertion when you are worried or anxious provides an emotional release of tension and can help you re-focus/divert your attention.
  • Certain exercises or fitness programs facilitate tension reduction (Tai Chi, shoulder shrugs, etc.)


Maintaining proper rest will help you cope with stress. Lack of sleep over a long period of time can produce its own feelings of tension and depression. When you are run down, worry, stress and anxiety affects you more.


Track (make note of) your body cycles to assist you in discovering if there is a pattern to your periods of stress. We all have low and high points which follow regular daily, weekly, monthly or yearly patterns. Stress can be predictable (holiday rush, major life events, exam periods, etc.) Planning for periods of predictable extra stress helps cushion the unpredictable event stress response.

Perceptual (What you see)

Positive and negative scanning

Learn to pay attention to what is relaxing for you and ignore what is upsetting. For example, on your way to school to write an exam, look at the trees and sky, and not the people biting their fingernails. Selectively ignoring aspects of a situation which raise your anxiety or looking for aspects which are comforting to you is called positive scanning; likewise avoid negative scanning which will add to your stress level.

Visualize relaxing/neutral scene

When you find yourself getting uptight - remember your neutral (relaxing) scene. Visualize it as completely as you can by focusing on what you are seeing, hearing, feeling and smelling. Be an actor in that scene, not the audience.

Diversion tactics

When you begin to feel uptight have some diversions at hand. These could be such things as science fiction or adventure novels, TV programs, sports, hobbies, etc. Just make sure you return to the situation that needs to be dealt with once you have calmed down.

Cognitive (What you think)

Stop trying to be perfect

We all want to be our best, but we can make ourselves stressed by expecting a standard which is not humanly possible. Look around - do you see any perfect people?

Analyze your "shoulds"

All of us seem to have plenty of "shoulds." e.g. I should always be nice, I should always be polite etc., which are the product of our upbringing as well as expectations of ourselves and other people. Make clear to yourself what your "shoulds" are and determine if they are realistic or necessary, and worth keeping.

Covert illogical thinking

Pay attention to the statements you make to yourself to make sure they are reasonably logical. For example, an illogical or irrational thought would be:

  • Jane doesn't want to go to the pub with me, therefore, Jane doesn't like me, therefore, I am unlovable. It could be:
    • Jane doesn't drink
    • Jane has other plans
    • Jane already has a hangover
    • etc.

A lot of statements we make to ourselves are the result of collecting poor data, or not checking the situation out fully enough, thus our conclusions are illogical or irrational. Don't fall into this trap.


Increase your self-reward. Be good to yourself by treating yourself to study breaks, special outings, bubble baths, food, congratulating yourself for a job well done, etc.

Stress inoculation/mental imagery

  • use your neutral scene to help you relax
  • mentally visualize/rehearse yourself being competent - e.g. asking a discussion provoking question in class
  • mentally rehearse all possible outcomes of a situation so that in the event that any one occurs you are not taken totally by surprise

Cognitive re-appraisal

Learn to think differently about things - "it's not what happens to you but how you take it." Don't spend $10 worth of energy on a 10 cent problem.

Affective Strategies (How you feel)

Increase the joy in your life

Remember that it used to be possible to enjoy things. Go back to those old friends/activities.

Learn to laugh

Try not take yourself or your actions so seriously. Ask yourself - will anyone know the difference a year from now?

Release emotions

Cry, laugh, pillow fight, kick doors, hit a tennis ball, yell in the car, wring a towel, get rid of those pent-up feelings in ways which are not destructive to you or anyone else.

Talk it out

Sometimes when you discuss your fears/stresses with someone you trust they are diminished. You may also find some new solutions or ideas.

Skill Strategies

Build up good skills

For anything. If you feel deficient, find a way to fill the gap.

  • Self-help literature. There are "Dummy" books for everything How to Parent; How to form relationships; How to fight fair; How to start a conversation, etc.
  • Take a course offered through recreation centres, Community Education, Church, Rotary, Student Affairs.
  • Evaluate your less than successful experiences within the context of what you learned and what you could do differently in the future.

Use learning principles

Break down long term goals into smaller goal steps. This way, as you reach each step towards the major goal, you can feel like you are accomplishing something. Rewarding yourself for successful completion of each step will keep you directed, interested and satisfied.

Use time management skills

Learn how to manage time and priorities effectively. Make a realistic plan with lots of breathing spaces, and work your plan. Be in control of what is accomplished and reward yourself when you are successful. Prioritize and work at the most important activities first.

Behavioural rehearsal

  • Mentally practice/visualize (what you want to do.)
  • Observe someone who does it well and imitate them -- modelling.
  • Role play the situation - with a friend or in front of the mirror.


Make a contract with yourself or a "policeman" friend for something you want to do. Work out a system of rewards for successful completion of the goal or punishment, (e.g. withholding going to a movie, studying for two extra hours, not watching the hockey game, etc.), if you fail to achieve your goal.

Strengthen interpersonal bonds (between people)

Caring, supportive relationships between friends and family feel good. Tension is lessened when we have caring and support from others. Courses and workshops, as well as self-help literature, can help you learn new ways of relating, and increase the depth of your relationships.

Strengthen intra-personal bonds (within yourself)

Appreciate yourself and note your successes. Get to know yourself better and develop new skills, e.g., Yoga, meditation, values clarification, assertiveness training, etc.

Environmental Strategies

Arranging consequences

Arrange for successful completion of goals by using strategies of reward or punishment. When goals have been accomplished use rewards, e.g., going to a movie, having a cappuccino or buying something, or for non-completion of goals withhold rewards, e.g., not going to the movie, etc. This takes a great deal of willpower, so make your initial goals easily obtainable and your rewards appropriate, and increase the steps as you are successful with each proceeding one. If you don't think you have the will power, ask a friend to help you out by making a contract with him/her.

Environmental support

Request extra support and assistance from your family, friends, school or at work to help you through anxious or stressful times or situations.

Time out

Take time out or a break from the stressful situation. Short breaks will help even out the stress.

Limit change in your life

Each change in your life adds to your stress, so reducing the number of changes at a given time, or scheduling changes, will help. For example, don't start dieting and quit smoking at the same time.


If feasible, avoid/minimize situations which make you uptight or anxious. If crowds make you anxious, avoid rock concerts, busy airports, theatre lobbies, etc.


You can always leave the situation - although it may not always be practical, but it is an option!


Rather than try to do everything at once, review tasks on a daily basis and do the most important ones first. Make sure you recognize each accomplishment.

Please send comments regarding this page to Nancy Willihnganz

Yoga is great for stress management
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