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The two exercises that will dramatically reduce your stress

Your inbox is overflowing, there are phone calls to return, a never-ending to do list and… somewhere amongst it all, you need to fit in exercise and God forbid, a life. 

Despite the invention of time-saving inventions, about one third of Australian adults report feeling moderate to severe stress. 

But, when stress becomes overwhelming and there’s not enough time in the day to do it all, two exercises can transform the way you feel.

The first exercise is as simple as it is potent. Take a deep breath.

The second exercise is to reframe your stress as excitement.

This is the advice based on a new study to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

The researchers, from Duke, Stanford, and Erasmus University Rotterdam, conducted a series of experiments examining ‘goal conflict’.

Goal conflict is the perception that pursuing one goal – like to do well at work– interferes with others – like having time for those we love. This internal conflict leads to anxiety and a sense that there’s not enough time for it all.

It also constricts our sense of time.

“Perceiving more goal conflict — both related and unrelated to demands on time – leads to heightened stress and anxiety, which subsequently makes people feel more time constrained,” the authors wrote.

Additionally, the researchers found that stress and anxiety are exacerbated further when we think goals are mutually exclusive: that to be successful, we must sacrifice love or family, for instance.

By simply breathing slowly however or seeing your conflict-induced anxiety as excitement, you have the power to extend your sense of time and space to prioritise and achieve your goals.

“When goal conflict seemed high, both interventions made participants feel they had as much time as when goal conflict seemed low,” the authors said.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

It’s unlikely that every task has to be completed immediately and breathing slowly calms the ‘fight or flight’ response and consciously creates the space to see clearly.

There’s something to be said for reducing stress where we can, but when we can’t, shifting our perspective can be equally effective.

Seeing your anxiety as excitement, on the other hand, channels the same high-arousal energy but redirects it from a negative, depleting emotion to a positive, energising one.

In one of the experiments, participants were instructed to repeat three times, “I am excited” and believe it. Those who had a high sense of goal conflict immediately felt as though they had more time. 

The advice to embrace and reappraise your stress and anxiety, instead of trying to eliminate or avoid it, is similar to other recent stress studies.

“Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident,” explained Stanford health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, of the latest stress research in a recent Ted talk which has been viewed online more than seven million times. 

But, most interesting, she said, was that the physical stress response of these participants improved too.

“Now, in a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict like this,” she said. 

“And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be in this state all the time. 

“But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed… Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. 

“It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.”

So, McGonigal, as well as the authors from this new study suggest befriending your stress and seeing it as your body’s way of helping you rise to challenge. 

“And when you view stress in that way,” McGonigal says, “your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

Courtesy Sarah Berry, The Age Newspaper 2nd February 2015

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