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Stress Response
Mind/Body Medicine

By Dr. Kathy Gruver - PhD, LMT, ND in Traditional Naturopathy

Anyone ever NOT been stressed out? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Stress is so common in our society that experts estimate that between 70-80% of doctors visits are for stress-related illnesses.

First off, what is the stress response?

It is a very important evolutionary process that acted as our alarm to danger. It’s the flight or fight response, a cascade of hormones that affect digestion, brain function, heart function, muscle tone, etc. The opposite of that reaction is the relaxation response which calms the stress response and releases feel good hormones. Whereas the stress response was very beneficial to warn us against immediate danger and get us moving to react, our current stresses are not as dynamic. It’s not a saber tooth tiger around the corner; it’s the economy, the IRS, our spouse, job insecurities, our kids, our boss, daily stresses that don’t seem to subside. When we don’t get a break from our reaction to stress it starts to manifest problems in our bodies; brain function, sleep, the immune and digestive systems, nothing is safe from the negative effects of stress. On the contrary, studies have shown that increasing the relaxation response not only slows heart rate, decreases blood pressure and cholesterol but also slows the genetic expression of aging. That’s right, relax more…age slower.

In reality, it isn’t the stress that’s such a problem. It’s our reaction to the stress.

What you might find stressful, I might be ok with and vice versa. We can’t necessarily control the stress around us, but we can learn to control our reaction to it so we can come from a healthier place.

A few months ago, I was privileged enough to study at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Harvard. There I learned techniques that have not only helped my clients, but have given me relaxation tips and peace of mind when I need it most. I’m going to share with you what I learned so that you can incorporate into your life immediately.

So, what types of things invoke the relaxation response?
Meditation, yoga, tai chi, laughter, chi gong and breath work are some of things that we can do ourselves, with no need for anyone else to help get us relaxed. I learned a technique called “minis”. These are mini meditations that take just a few minutes to do. And you can do them anywhere. I’ve never been a “good” meditator. My brain works so fast, that I have trouble shutting out those unwanted thoughts, sound familiar. But with the mini’s, I’ve found that not only is it easy for me, but feels so good I don’t want to stop doing it.

Here are the two rules for meditation:

1. Focus on something repetitive; your breath, a mantra, a sound, a word, etc.

2. When thoughts intrude, acknowledge them without judgment and dismiss them. Then just go back to your breath.

How easy is that? I get my body in a comfortable position, close my eyes (unless I’m driving) and see if I’m holding any tension in my body. I release it and do one of the following mini’s.

Mini #1: Count very slowly to yourself from 10 down to 0, one number on each outbreath. Thus, breathe in, and on your first outbreath, say “10” to yourself. With the next outbreath, say “9,” working your way down to “0.” When you get to “0,” notice how you feel.

Mini #2: As you breathe in, count slowly up to “4;” as you breathe out, count slowly back down to “1.” Thus, as you breathe in, you say quietly to yourself, “1.. 2.. 3.. 4,” and as breathe out, you say quietly to yourself, “4.. 3.. 2.. 1.” Do this several times.

Click Here to Listen

Big Blend Radio Interview

Dr. Kathy Gruver discusses Stress Response!

Dr. Kathy L. Gruver PhD, LMT, RM, is a licensed and certified medical massage therapist, Reiki master, natural health consultant, birth assistant and Traditional Naturopath. Owner of Healing Circle Massage & Natural Health in Santa Barbara, Kathy is the author of  'The Alternative Medicine Cabinet' and has produced the DVD 'Therapeutic Massage at Home: Learn to Rub People the RIGHT Way!' Visit:  

Mini #3: Square breathing. Visualize a square. On the inbreath, visualize a vertical line and then a horizontal line. On the outbreath, you visualize another vertical and horizontal, and you complete the square.

These are just a few versions of mini’s which I’m providing here compliments of the Benson-Henry Mind-Body Institute.

There you have it, you just meditated. For myself, I use this technique when in traffic, standing in line at the post office, a few times a day when I feel like I need a little vacation and sometimes even during a massage when the client is particularly quiet. I use that time to quiet my own mind and do the repetition of (inhale) I am, (exhale) at peace.

The next technique is a bit more complicated. It’s called cognitive restructuring and it helps out in changing our minds and thoughts about our stress. A blank chart follows. Here’s how it works.

Cognitive Restructuring
Distortions 1
Distortions 2

Across the top of the page, you list your stressor.

The first column is how the stressor makes you feel physically, and then the second column is for emotions about the issue.

Column 3 is the repetitive thoughts you have surrounding the stressor.

Column 4 is the distortions that those thoughts have (see list of distortions in sidebar).

Column 5 is how you would like to feel, then row 6 is action items that you can do.  

I’ll use a real life example of my own.

My stressor was about getting my condo rented.

1. Physically it made me feel queasy, sleepless and made my heart race.

2. From an emotional perspective I felt anxious, angry and humiliated.

3. My repetitive thoughts were “I’ll be broke”, “I’ll never get it rented”, “We’re stupid for buying the place at all” with the distortions listed next to it like magnification, fortune telling and “shoulding”. (column 4).

As I re-read all of what I had written, I realized how ridiculous it was….”I was going to be broke”? Really, all my money would be gone and I’d be living on the street? Really, is that true? No, of course not, but my distorted thinking made it seem that way. Another one…”we’ll never get it rented”. Really, it will sit empty until the day I die? No one, ever again, will rent that condo? Again, when you say it out loud and write it down, it seems ridiculous and what I realized was that it had only been available for 2 weeks. Not several months, not years, 2 weeks.

5. The next column of how I want to feel is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the action steps in the last column (6) which are most important. I thought hard about what I could do to remedy the situation. Also, of course adding in that it had only been open for 2 weeks and we have always gotten it rented before. Those are 2 plusses! What else could we do aside from take a deep breath and do a mini? We could hire a rental agency, we could lower the rent, we could advertise in different places, accept Section 8 and if it really got that bad, we could try to sell the property.

Just knowing that there were actionable things I could do decreased my stress about the situation.

Also, seeing how distorted my thinking was about the situation relieved most of the stress. Was the condo still for rent after I finished this process? Yes, of course. But I could handle the stress in a rational way and deal better with the situation. We can’t control our feelings, but we can control our thoughts about the feelings.

This process can help you deal with your stress. Once you learn how to fill out the simple chart and to identify the distortions, it’s an easy technique that you can use for almost any repeat offender of stress. Once I started using the chart on a few issues, I now find that I don’t even need to fill it out, it comes naturally to me. I don’t have the immediate stressful knee jerk reaction to situations that before learning these techniques would have put me in a tailspin.

Hopefully these two methods will help you to handle the stress better in your life. More information about cognitive restructuring can be found online at numbers of websites. Classes and more information are available at the benson-henry institute for mind-body medicine at  and thanks to the institute for providing the minis and the list of distortions.