Woman First

4 Stress Styles and Remedies for Them

by Sandra Gordon

You’re shivering in a flimsy gown in the doctor’s office or sweating like an athlete before an important meeting with your child’s teacher. If only you could relax, 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.

“Relaxation is very individual,” says Jon Seskevich, a stress- and pain- management educator at Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC. In fact, many of us fall into one of four basic stress types.  

Type 1: The Monitor
The Monitor is all about control. You like to live in the present 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’s 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. If asked to imagine yourself say, 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? “The Moni-tor’s mind can be her worst enemy when it comes to relaxing,” says Patricia McWhorter, PhD., a clinical psychologist in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Stress Rx: Physical relaxation techniques such as belly breathing (breathing from the depths of your diaphragm) work best. During stressful situations, monitor your breathing by placing your hand on your abdomen and watching it rise and fall in sync with each breath. Belly breathing distracts you from the event at hand and counteracts 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), 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 at your child’s school? 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, PhD, president of Getting Ahead Programs, which specializes in stress-management workshops.

During a choppy airplane ride, you find it easy to sleep or escape into a good book. When your boss drops yet another last-minute project on your desk, you take a quick mental time-out and imagine yourself sipping margaritas on the veranda at sunset.

Stress Rx: If this sounds like you, milk your creative visualization talents. Imagine yourself somewhere better during trying times. “Try different scenarios and pick one you truly find relaxing,” says Seskevich. Keep engaging reading material and your favorite videos 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, PhD, a psychiatry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Or turn to music. Concentrate on the lyrics, or remember a time associated with the song. For stress relief on the run, tote your iPod player stocked with tunes that soothe you.

Type 3: Spiritually Inclined
You feel a reverent connection to the universe. Whether or not you participate in an 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.

Stress Rx: 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. “Choose a phrase that resonates with you,” says Seskevich.

For general stress relief, Dr. McWhorter suggests you “connect with nature. Go for a leisurely walk or stroll with your kids in the park or sit by a river and watch the sunset.” Or attend a religious service. “You will probably be comforted by the hymns, or simply the feeling of connection with others,” says Jenkins.

Other options: listening to spiritually themed tapes that use outdoor imagery, or carrying something with you that evokes a feeling of solace and protection, such as the rosary or a photo of a nature scene.

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, PhD, a psychologist at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, NY.

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 de-stressed after exercise, even though during your workout, your mind wanders. You’re a master at multitasking — you put on your make-up while getting breakfast for your 2-year-old while talking on your cell phone and sipping your coffee.

Stress Rx: 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.”

Exercise in general is also beneficial, but it’s important to choose an activity that demands your undivided attention. Put your husband on daddy duty and sign up for a team sport or a dance class with elaborate drills.

For stressful moments when exercise is not an option, “try progressive muscle relaxation,” suggests John Harvey, PhD, author of Total Relaxation (Kodansha, $20). 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 anyone. “When you’re taking long, deep breaths, you interrupt the physiological response of anxiety, which is to breathe shallowly,” says Douglas A. Jones, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Sewickley, PA.

Connecting: When you’re lying in bed, “your shoulders can still be hunched, your fists clenched,” says Jon Seskevich, RN. 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 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. “Plus, it releases those nice calming endorphins,” says Dr. McWhorter.

Sandra Gordon is a freelance writer.