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Karen Maleck-Whiteley: Reduce stress in five minutes or less

Live Well, Stress Less

Posted: December 2, 2010 9:09 p.m.
Updated: December 2, 2010 4:55 a.m.

It seems like stress is a fact of life for most of us. Many of us have had stress-reduction training before, or know some of the things we should do to help ourselves feel better. It just seems like we never have time, or just can’t remember to apply them.

If you were to search the Internet for the term “stress management,” you would find more than 23,500,000 hits.

There’s a lot of information out there.

But how do you find stress-management techniques that actually work for you in your day-to-day life?

In teaching stress management to private clients and to organizations, my partner Carol Woodliff and I realized that many of the traditional stress-management techniques just weren’t being used by the majority of people.

Why? Because when we are under pressure, the first things we cross off our “to-do” list are exercise, rest and other self-care activities that reduce our stress.

Many of our clients would say, “I don’t have an hour to devote to de-stressing myself. I don’t have an extra hour for anything.”

Realizing that stress management needs to work with people’s lives we started revising our approach to teaching stress management, which lead us develop what we call the five-minute stress management ritual.

A ritual is simply something you do repeat over and over again, for a specific purpose.

This one is a set of tools you can use throughout your day to feel better in the moment, and keep from accumulating so much stress in your body.

5-minute management
This technique helps you develop a quick relaxation and reset mechanism.

There are times when relaxation is easy; we just melt into the couch at home and we let go.

But there are times when no matter what we do, we just can’t relax.

The fact is relaxation is a skill that can be learned. With regular practice, it can become second nature.

The first five steps of the technique can be used in the midst of a busy day or even during complete chaos. With the addition of the sixth technique, which is an imagery escape, the ritual can provide you with complete relaxation in less than five minutes.

The more you use this technique, the more your body will automatically respond and relax.

The key is to create a routine and set an intention of relaxation each time you use the routine. Soon your body will begin to respond when you do just a small part of your relaxation ritual.

This simple ritual is composed of seven basic steps. Each one is easy to use individually or together with the others.

Once you have learned to use all the steps, you will find that any of them can relax and center you almost immediately.

When you are ready to de-stress, get comfortable and read through each step listed below. Try each one individually at first. You may want to try them first with your eyes open as you read the instructions, and then do a couple practice runs with your eyes closed.

Then try stringing the steps together and building your own way of doing the five-minute ritual.

1.  Determine your level
To get started, focus for a moment on how you are feeling. On a scale of 1-10, how stressed are you?

It is good to notice where you are so you can see what progress you make as you go through the ritual.

Think about how you feel, and pick your number now.

2. Breathing
Start by exhaling completely. Pushing all the air out until it becomes a little uncomfortable to keep breathing out.

Then take a natural deep breath in. Do this at least three times.

Breathe out completely. Empty all the air out of your lungs, making sure your stomach moves in and back as you exhale.

Now breathe in and allow your lungs and stomach to fill naturally. One more time now breathe out.

Make sure the out breath is full and extended.

Now breathe in the air you naturally desire, and let your body take over and move your breathing into a relaxed, comfortable rhythm. It is important to start by focusing on your breath. When we are under stress, our breathing tends to move up higher in the chest, and become more shallow. When we are in crisis, we sometimes hold our breath. This is why this ritual starts with the complete exhale.

Whenever you find yourself not breathing, or breathing in a constricted way, simply start with the complete exhale – go ahead and practice it again now.

Exhale completely, and breathe in naturally.

Do not force your in breath – allow it to give you the air you need.

When you have done this three or more times, allow you breathing to settle into a relaxed, easy pace.

This type of breath sends a signal to the body that all is well, and any stress pattern that may be operating is interrupted.

It is helpful to practice this breathing throughout your day, even if you are feeling great.

3. Key word
Think of a word that describes how you feel when you are very relaxed —like when you are in bed in the morning just as you wake up,  or perhaps when you are on vacation and somewhere like a beach and you don’t have a care in the world.
Words like calm or relaxed or free or cozy or peaceful.

Just pick one or two that you like and try them.

Say the word or words to yourself as you breathe out fully. Breathe in now, and say your word on the exhale. Breathe in deeply, and do the full out breathe again, saying your word or words to yourself.

Practice this several times, as many as you want. Remember, you can use your key words anytime.

4. Check in w/ your body
Now check in with your body. Some people find it easier to tune in with the inner feelings of their body with their eyes closed.

Try it either way, and see what works best for you. This part of the process is about noticing any physical tension or discomfort you are holding in your body and doing the natural movements that help you release that tension.

You don’t need formal training in stretching or yoga to do this.

Think of a cat or dog: how they naturally stretch when they have been in one position for a while.

The idea is to notice what your body needs.

Begin by noticing your face. Are you holding tension around your eyes? Is your forehead creased? Are you clenching your jaw or teeth?

As you become aware of what is going on in your face, notice what would feel good.

Rubbing your hands together and cupping them over your eyes? Yawning and releasing tension in the jaw? Just notice, and do what you need to do to release what tension you can.

Check in with your neck and shoulders. Gently roll your head or shoulders. Just check and do what your body needs you to do here. Be gentle — start with small movements.

You can even rub the back of your neck or shrug your shoulders if that feels good to you. This is an area where many of us hold onto stress.

Release what you can, and notice it is possible to let some of it go.

Continue scanning your body, your back, your legs and arms.

Just gently move and adjust your body. Stretch different parts and feel how your body feels. Move whatever parts feel like they need to move.

Perhaps you need to stretch upward with your arms toward the sky, or bend to the side or forward. Maybe your back needs a gentle twist back and forth. Or try rotating your feet, and pointing and flexing your toes.

As you tune in and stretch, you may realize there is something you have been ignoring that needs attention: a tooth or your back may require an appointment with a doctor.

Make a commitment to schedule one.

Or perhaps you notice you are thirsty or need a restroom break. Take care of those things as soon as you finish this session.

Listen to the messages our body sends us and honor those messages, reduces stress and improves health.

5. Connecting, centering
Become aware of your feet and place them firmly on the floor. Feel the solidness of the floor underneath your feet.

Imagine you are connected through the floor to the ground and the earth. Feel the energy of the earth flowing upward into you and allowing you to be centered, stable, and balanced, like a well rooted oak tree. Imagine this energy connects all the way up through your feet and legs, to the center of your body and beyond.

Thinking of these images makes you stronger and more stable — you cannot be knocked off balance by the things that are going on around you.

You can be relaxed and connected and centered all at the same time, just that quickly.

6. Take a mini-vacation
Close your eyes, and imagine yourself in a safe beautiful place out in nature where you can just be, not having to do anything.

Every person has a place they prefer or dream about — perhaps it is a beach or the mountains or the desert. You know what you like — what makes you feel good. It can be a real place, or one you make up in your head. Fill in all the details — what it looks like — what you can hear as you look around. What is the temperature? Is there a breeze? Are there fragrances?

Just allow yourself to be fully in this place.

Escape for just a minute or two and when you are ready to return to your day, open your eyes.

It may be tempting to stay in your safe place for the rest of the day, but since this is a five minute ritual, you’ll have to drag yourself back sooner. You can always go back for as long as you like when you have the time.

This step is very effective when used just before going to sleep at night.

7. Recheck your level
The final step is to determine your level of relaxation. Where are you now on that one to 10 scale?

Remember where you were when you started? Notice the difference.

This routine can help you take a quick break in the middle of any day.

You can do the breathing, key word, body scan, and centering parts without the imagery vacation with your eyes open in any situation, or use all parts together depending on the time you have. The more you practice this routine, the easier it will be for you to use under pressure, and the faster your body and mind will respond to it.

I encourage you to practice throughout your normal days, even when you are not feeling particularly stressed. With regular practice, this ritual will become your very own, and you will strengthen your ability to relax and handle any situation.

Karen Maleck-Whiteley is a certified hypnotherapist, coach, speaker, and author. She is also the co-owner of Balance Point Spa in Canyon Country, where she provides individual sessions, stress management classes, and coaching and hypnotherapy. Info: (661) 252-0650 or


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