Steps to Beat Stress

by Michael Shelton

Your waterfront director quits. The septic system is acting up again. And the camp nurse thinks one camper might be coming down with chicken pox. The camp season is filled with unexpected events. After all, working with and having legal responsibility for other people’s children is highly stressful. When stress levels are too high in any job, performance and motivation decrease. Sleep-deprived staff working in the emotionally charged and physically taxing atmosphere of camp are at a great risk of suffering from the effects of stress.

The Stress Effect

A certain amount of stress is necessary to limit boredom, yet too much is both physically and emotionally harmful. The effects of stress on the human body are well documented. The immune, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems can all be negatively affected by stress. Even logical and creative thinking are affected. And though it was once thought that only major stressors, such as the death of a loved one, constituted a threat to an individual’s health, experts now recognize that even seemingly minor, yet ongoing stressors, such as daily traffic jams, can have a similar effect through their cumulative nature.

One complicating factor is that the ability to tolerate and handle stress varies from person to person. One person may give up in a stressful situation, while another may creatively construct a list of possible solutions. Some people are simply better able to manage stress.

Managing Stress

How do camp professionals faced with endless daily stressors "stress proof" themselves? Fortunately, many techniques have been developed to help you learn to manage stress more productively. These techniques are easy to learn, and they take just twenty to twenty-five minutes a day to perform. For busy camp professionals, the morning may be the best time to do these stress-reducing exercises, or you may prefer to practice them during your breaks or lunchtime. Research has confirmed that applying these techniques five times a week can help you cope with stress.

Following are some proven methods that can help you effectively manage stress. A trip to a library or bookstore will acquaint you with a multitude of other stress reduction books and manuals. Keep in mind that every technique will not be suitable for every individual. You should try to find at least two techniques that work for you, and then practice, practice, practice. Learning a variety of techniques enables you to have choices to choose from when stress levels swell. Incidentally, a lack of choices in any area of life can induce stress, just as too many choices can.

How's Your Breathing?

Ask several of your co-workers to take a deep breath and watch how their bodies change. Does the chest expand when they inhale? This is how most people, especially men, breathe. The chest expands on inhale and returns to normal size on exhale. However, breathing this way does not promote good health.

A healthier breathing technique — diaphragmatic breathing — can be better for your body and help you manage stress. When you experience stress, your body reacts: your breathing becomes shallow, maybe even occurring in spurts, and oxygen levels drop in the blood. Diaphragmatic breathing can slow down the body’s functions and allow a person to better deal with an unexpected event. It is often used in combination with other stress reduction techniques.

Diaphragmatic breathing
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath through your nose. Now concentrate on how your hands move. The objective is to have the hand on your stomach rise with minimal movement of the chest. Full expansion of the abdomen may result in some chest movement, but the focus should remain on the abdomen. To end the breath, exhale through your mouth. Always breathe at a rate that is comfortable for you. If you experience difficulty with this breathing method, lie on your back and practice.

Relaxation Is Key

The method by which people relax varies from individual to individual. One person may listen to music, while another may take a leisurely walk. The more relaxation choices people have, the better prepared they are for capably managing stress. The following two techniques are proven to help you better deal with stress. Just as working out at the gym results in increased physical strength and endurance over a period of time, practicing these techniques will make you more fit in dealing with stress and the anxiety that comes with it. Performing these exercises at least twenty minutes a day can result in a greatly increased ability to manage stress.

Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation has decades of proven benefits in reducing stress. The exercise is easy to perform and can be done while sitting at a desk. Each major muscle group is tensed for seven seconds and then released. The release should be sudden and complete and should last for fifteen to thirty seconds. This technique should be performed twice a day for ten minutes each time (which for all the benefits of this exercise really isn’t that much time at all).

The following sample script will lead you:

  • Sit in a comfortable position with feet flat on the ground and hands resting on your legs.
  • Take several diaphragmatic breaths and close your eyes.
  • Place your heels on the floor, and point your toes toward the ceiling. Release and repeat.
  • Place your toes on the floor and lift your heels. Release and repeat.
  • Contract buttocks (as if pushing them down into the chair). Release and repeat.
  • Push abdomen out. Release and repeat.
  • Lift shoulders toward ears. Release and repeat.
  • Make a fist with each hand. Release and repeat.
  • Tighten biceps. Release and repeat.
  • Wrinkle forehead, squint eyes, and tighten muscles in neck. Release and repeat.

The second major intervention for stress is meditation, which is simply focused awareness and concentration on a particular object while screening out any external distractions.

You can meditate on just about anything — a spot on the wall, your own breathing, a word or phrase repeated continuously in your mind, even a particular comforting sound such as waves or a ticking clock. Many people begin meditating and promptly fall asleep. While this shows the power of the technique, the objective is a state of intense concentration, not slumber. Meditation is recommended for just about every problem that exists, whether physical or psychological. Its effects are so conclusively beneficial that it is well worth the mere twenty minutes a day needed to master it.

There are myriad meditation approaches. The one presented here is meant only as an introduction. Allow ten minutes at first for this exercise, but begin slowly, adding more time as you grow more comfortable and proficient with the technique.

  • Begin by finding a comfortable position, either sitting or reclining.
  • Close your eyes, and take several diaphragmatic breaths.
  • Start repeating a one or two-word phrase in your mind, pacing it to occur with each slow exhale. The phrase should have personal associations of peace or relaxation, such as "I’m relaxing" or "I’m calm." Allow any distracting thoughts, which may be particularly diverting for the novice, to simply drift away. Just repeat the phrase, and focus all your attention on it.

The combination of diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation, and meditation is a very successful method of dealing with stress. Practicing these techniques daily will enhance — often dramatically — a person’s resistance to the effects of stress. And when stressful situations do arise, prompt utilization of these techniques will decrease the negative physical and mental responses associated with stress.

Michael Shelton is the assistant director of Camp William Penn in Pennsylvania. He is also an outpatient therapist for substance abusing individuals and is currently working toward his graduate degree.

Originally published in the 1998 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.