In my previous post, I investigated the diverse concept of stress. Stress management is also known for a fascinating panoply of techniques. In this post, I present a selection of popular stress management therapies.
Item number 1: The Stress Ball.
The stress ball was a staple of the office environment in the late 20th century, along with ‘Newton’s cradle’ and Bonsai trees. The underlying logic was that squeezing the ball would ‘release your stress’, but the science never followed. Today, stress balls are seldom prescribed as stress therapy.
Item No. 2: Exercise
Exercise is a common prescription for stress management. The notion here is that exercise induces wellbeing (naturally this depends somewhat on your attitude to the subject) and wellbeing reduces stress.
Item No. 3: The Sensory Deprivation Tank
The Sensory Deprivation Tank is a soundproof chamber filled with warm salt-water, which allows you to float (hence its other name, flotation tank). Once the lid is closed, the inside of the tank is pitch black, but you can exit at any time you choose.
What distinguishes the tank from simply taking a bath in a soundproof, dark room? The answer is that the extent of the reduction of auditory and visual information coming in from your senses tends to induce vivid daydreams, such as beautiful imagery and, in some cases, entire pieces of music! The proposed reason for this internal effect is that once the brain lacks input, it will ‘fill in the blanks’ through the imagination/memory. This daydreaming state of mind is said to reduce stress.
Item No 4: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Pioneered by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in the early 20th Century, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique where participants are instructed to tense — and then relax — a set of body parts in succession. Tensing the muscle prior to relaxation is meant to deepen the relaxation, thus reducing stress.
Item No 5: Meditation
Meditation is one of the most popular stress-busting treatments today. Interestingly, most meditation experts emphasize that meditation is not relaxation. That is, the goal of meditation is not primarily to relax your body (although that may be a side-effect). Rather the goal is more psychological nature, such as practicing mindfulness, loosely defined as the ability to stay present in each moment, as it occurs to us. This presence is meant to reduce stress.
Wellbeing, relaxation and mindfulness are meant to treat the same problem. Therefore, there is reason for skepticism. It is not clear, for example, how the wellbeing derived from exercise relates to the daydreams of the flotation tank, other than the fact that these therapies often induce generally ‘positive’ experiences.
The different goals of PMR and meditation demonstrates this problem. In his original book, aptly titled ‘You Must Relax’, Dr. Jacobson warned that the word stress was much to vague to be useful, urging his colleagues to use the word tension to discuss the problem treated by relaxation. On the other hand, meditation is a stress treatment, but is not meant to relax you. Thus, PMR and relaxation treat different problems, yet these problems are referred to using the same word. Imagine if the word influenza referred to two different types of problems, yet you could choose either treatment A or treatment B (where only one would actually solve your problem). How would you know which treatment was best for you?
In any event, I hope you have enjoyed this short tour through the often strange world of stress therapy, and that it has promoted healthy skepticism about the relationship between stress and its treatment.
Jacobson, E. (1946). You Must Relax: a Practical Method of Reducing the Strains of Modern Living. Garden City, N.Y: Blue Ribbon Books.