Allen Lebovits, Ph.D.

The approaching New Year is often a very stressful time. It is a time when new commitments such as losing weight, quitting smoking, increasing exercise as well as other significant behavioral and lifestyle changes are made. Unfortunately, these goals and commitments are often overly ambitious and unrealistic. Choosing small, realistic, and attainable goals as well as adaptation of stress management techniques is the best approach to being successful in the New Year.

The initial step in stress management programs is to identify one’s stressors in daily life. Using cognitive-behavioral techniques such as relaxation training and cognitive restructuring frequently follows this. Other important stress-management interventions that can be particularly helpful include using time management techniques, sharing feelings and problems, using humor, and participating in physical exercise.

Relaxation methods are very effective for managing stress. They are particularly effective when used with imagery. In guided imagery, you focus on a multi-sensory imaginary scene. Focusing on the different sensory modalities of the scene can make the image more engaging. Everyone has a different image that works for him or her, although the warm beach/ocean is by far the most common scene of tranquility. You need to set aside time to practice in a comfortable position without any interruptions. Imagery can work as an effective distraction technique.

Meditation, another method of relaxation, is defined as “the intentional self-regulation of attention from moment to moment.” Concentration meditation, involving focused attention on a point or object such as a mantra, differs from mindfulness meditation, which emphasizes detached observation from one moment to the next. Mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating transformation”.

Cognitive restructuring, or reframing, is often used very effectively in managing stress. It is based on the theory that our thoughts determine behavior, emotions, and even physiology (e.g., increased muscle tension or headaches). With this method you learn to identify, challenge, and eventually change self-defeating thoughts (e.g., “I can’t do this”). With this technique, you are taught to identify negative thoughts, which are often over-generalizing statements about yourself that control your thinking (e.g., “I can’t do anything right”), and to replace them with more constructive and adaptive positive thoughts (e.g., “I can still do many important things”). You learn to use these adaptive thoughts when confronted with stressful situations. It is important to see your cup as half full rather than half empty. Realistic optimism is a good way of coping with stress.

Time management consists of creating daily task lists. Done properly, time management is effective for those of us who are overwhelmed by our new commitments and goals. Time management is an important intervention, particularly for “workaholics” or very disorganized people. It consists of making daily lists of tasks, prioritizing them with regard to their importance, estimating the amount of time each task takes, and possibly delegating the ones that others can do. If done properly, time management methods can relieve a significant amount of stress for those who often feel overwhelmed.

Sharing feelings and problems with others such as significant others, friends, or professionals can be an effective method of relieving stress. Internalizing emotions or keeping them pent up is generally considered to be unhealthy and has been correlated with a variety of medical conditions including chronic pain. People with strong support systems have been shown to cope more effectively with stress.

The use of humor can be an effective stress reducer. Laughing at one’s problems and taking a humorous perspective on difficult situations can facilitate stress reduction. Similarly, making time for fun by involving oneself in recreational activities can be a good distraction.

Physical exercise on a regular basis, usually recommended three times a week for 20–30 minutes, can be a particularly effective stress reducer. Swimming is considered to be one of the best cardiovascular exercises, particularly good for those of us who may need to limit physical stress placed on the joints.

So as you move forward with your plans for the New Year, take time, think about your goals realistically, and use the above techniques to help you.