Balance and Stress Management

“Diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body.” (Cicero, in The Quote Garden, 2016)

The world’s religions, most scientific literature (Treadway, 1998), and most cultures’ traditions of common sense and wisdom agree: as human beings, we need balance. That is, we most capably give ourselves an antidote to the stresses of life if we have balanced, nurturing connections with ourselves, between ourselves and significant others, and between ourselves and a higher power (however we conceive it: “the universe,” “God,” “the transcendent,” or our “higher self”). Balance is essential for tending to our core needs and concerns, on all the levels of body, mind, and spirit. It is not a static thing.

Balance requires constant adaptation to achieve the state of “dynamic equilibrium” (an ever-shifting balance) wherein our needs are most well catered for. It may not be easy. We are constantly pulled to ignore the needs of ourselves in order to care for others. Yet the rewards of going for balance are big; we gain a sense of self-esteem, of mastery, and a deep trust that indeed we are capable of being the captain of our own ship. Balanced, we can navigate effectively through even the stormy waters of life (adapted from Baker, 2003). In this article we look at the importance of down time, self-care rituals, and relaxation/meditation for creating and maintaining balance in our lives.

Taking “down time” and time to replenish

A woman said recently that she had had several hours of doing nothing on the weekend. The others at the lunch table remarked that that must have been nice. She replied that it wasn’t, really, as she didn’t know what to “do” with herself! A huge stressor in modern life is the relentless time and task demands. There is always more that could be done, yet over-functioning results in emotional depletion. The antidote is to have unscheduled time: time when nothing is expected of you, time to play and renew.

Non-work endeavours such as hobbies and leisure-time activities are integral to the full expression of ourselves as human beings. We need to proactively schedule in time and energy for creative and self-expressive pursuits, play activities, and growth hobbies. Gardening, arts and crafts, music-making, and taking in concerts and museum exhibitions are all self-renewing ventures when we engage them voluntarily.

Play can be something as simple as laughing with a friend or chasing a beloved pet around the garden. Walking in nature, drumming, and dancing can all bring us to another level of awareness, which short-circuits the stress response. The goal is to recreate rather than to “numb out”, to let go of burden and responsibility rather than to demonstrate more competence or status to the world. What we choose will ultimately be a function of factors such as our stage of life, what is available in our environment to do (including cost-wise), and what our personality preferences (including introversion and extraversion) dictate that we should choose. The point is to simply enjoy ourselves, thereby refilling the emotional tanks left empty by our demanding lives.

“R and R” periods such as holidays serve a similar purpose. The absence of phone calls and, if possible, email, gives us the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective, and to better assess our needs and options. Unbelievably, some observers claim that this is harder for some people to do than the actual work which is depleting them (Baker, 2003)! Yet there is enormous re-balancing potential in “cultivating relaxation habits with the same energy and commitment that you apply to your work” (Ziegler and Kanas, 1986, p 180).

Self-care rituals

Self-care rituals span the spectrum of body-mind-spirit strategies for managing stress. They may be something that we physically perform, such as an elaborate relaxing bath, or something that we take mental/emotional space in order to do, such as a daily visualisation program. But they are organised with the idea of calming and centring ourselves to compensate for the chaotic, “hurley-burley” of life. In this, they gently bring us to another perspective. Scan your mind for such activities in your life. Which rituals might you have? Would you like more rituals? If so, of what type?

Strategies to tend to spirit

Spirituality means different things to different people. For some it is a humanistic sense of how we can collectively care for our environment, make better lives for the less fortunate, and generally connect better on a human-to-human level. For others, spirituality has to do with formal and organised religion and the rituals that are related to that. While both of those aspects are important, the sense in which we mean “spiritual” here is that of overarching “whole of life” questions.

These are concerns about the meaning and purpose of our life, the values that we live by, and the consequent desire to draw towards the “something more than”. Connecting with spirit or spiritual experiences helps us to counter the physical and mental symptoms of the stress response (Benson, 1996). Studies and objective observations of healing progress from medical procedures support the idea that engaging stillness activities such as contemplation, meditation, and prayer accelerates healing, generates higher levels of functioning and ushers in a sense of wellbeing, hopefulness, and optimism (Miller, 1999).

Relaxation, mindfulness, and meditation techniques: What are the options?

Most of the stress management techniques in this category involve learning how to control our body’s response to stress. It is about learning to consciously relax the body and still the mind. Like learning a new language, a little bit every day is far better than a mega-session occasionally. Burgeoning research studies support practitioners’ contentions that multiple advantages accrue to those who sit in stillness. Look over this summary of basic practices. How many are you familiar with? As you read through them, think about which ones you might like to try.

Meditation: Allowing you to live in the present moment, letting go of past frustrations and future worries, meditation techniques yield physical, mental, and spiritual improvements. To begin, find a quiet spot away from phone, email, television, and other people. Depending on which sort of meditation you do, you may be repeating a mantra (such as in transcendental meditation), chanting (such as in some Buddhist practices), or focusing on breathing or a particular visualisation (a component in many styles of stillness practice). In mindfulness meditation, you may be concentrating on just one thing. Even ten minutes daily can yield results and you will be able to sit for longer and longer periods as you develop your meditation “muscle”.

Biofeedback: With this method, surface electromyography electrodes (SEMG) are attached to your skin. The SEMG measures your blood pressure, muscle tension, breathing, and heart rate. A specifically trained biofeedback therapist shows you on a computer screen the ways in which your body reacts, and then teaches you skills for decreasing your stress levels.

Yoga: Combining meditation and physical exercise to achieve accelerated wellbeing, Yoga involves repeating movements that improve strength and flexibility, promote mental and physical health, and enhance self-awareness. This 5000-year-old practice includes breathing and has spiritual significance for many people.

Guided imagery: Stress reduction is achieved in guided imagery practices through the use of visualisation and mental imagery techniques. It has been used effectively with cancer and other patients, who see themselves (in their mind’s eye) without the diseased cells. Alternatively, with guided imagery, practitioners can transport themselves mentally to a restful, beautiful place, thereby calming and relaxing themselves. Proponents claim that the technique can reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and glucose levels in the blood, and heighten short-term immune cell activity (Guided Imagery Resource Center, in Rakal, 2013).

Deep breathing: Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, deep-breathing exercises teach you to engage your diaphragm. If you learn this technique you are in good company; singers and actors have used it for centuries in order to generate uninterrupted song or dialogue (adapted from Rakal, 2013).

The critical aspect of any of these stillness techniques is that they must be practiced regularly. Saying that one cannot concentrate is no excuse; that’s how most people feel, even after years of practice!

The balancing act: How are you doing?

We’ve discussed the importance of downtime, self-care rituals, and stillness practices in separate sections, but in reality, some of the same activities may serve for all three functions, or at least overlap. Let’s take a moment now for you to take stock. Find a quiet place and spend a few moments reflecting on how your normal daily or weekly routine enhances or undermines your wellness through helping you to achieve a balanced wholeness (or not). Make notes in the spaces provided after the questions.

How much time do you spend each day/week doing preferred leisure activities and hobbies (such as sports, arts and crafts, music, gardening, or cultural activities? How satisfied are you with the activities you have chosen? For example, are they freely chosen, or are you just going along with someone else’s preference? Do you feel renewed after engaging them? Do you have a sense of genuinely re-creating – of coming to another level of awareness – when performing them?

What self-care rituals do you have? How often do you do them? Are there any other things you would like to do for yourself? If the answer is “yes”, make notes on what you believe is keeping you from tending to yourself in this way. For example, you might wish to have more relaxing facials or massages. Perhaps you do not get them frequently because you do not have a budget for that, but if you never treat yourself, is there something else besides a lack of money going on?

Do you have a spiritual holding: a particular way of connecting with the divine or your higher self that brings you peace, joy, higher insight, and other stress-reducing qualities? Which, if any, stress management strategies do you have in the category of spiritual practices? This could include daily prayer/contemplation/meditation periods, spiritually-oriented exercise, or other aspects of mindfulness and deep breathing. How regular are you in observing these practices?

How often, if ever, do you allow yourself to have retreat space for several days? Retreats vary widely in their orientation, from the 10-days-in-silence retreats to facilitated group events where there is much sharing of experience in addition to periods of reflection. What sorts of activities, such as journal writing, biofeedback, or visualisation might you do to supplement your regular program? As you reflect on this slice of your life, especially in regard to its stress management capacity, how satisfied are you with your overall spiritual practice? Is there anything else in this category which you would like to try? Where might you get more information on the additional technique(s) you would like to do?

If the idea of daily downtime/self-care/relaxation practice seems overwhelming (like: “Where on earth will I get the time from?” or “How do I start?”), do not despair. You can take “baby steps” in making changes. Experiment until you find a way of balancing yourself that feels compatible with the overall rhythms of your life. Like any investment, it may take time to get that “R.O.I” (return on investment), but eventually the time you invest will reap the reward of an ever-increasing dynamic equilibrium: a balance ever more finely attuned to the you of your wholeness.


  • Baker, E. K. (2003). Caring for ourselves: A therapist’s guide to personal and professional well-being. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Miller, W.R., (Ed.). (1999). Integrating spirituality into treatment: Resources for practitioners. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Rakal, D. (2013). Relaxation and meditation techniques. Psych Central. Retrieved on 2 February, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • The quote garden (2016). Quotations about health. The quote garden. Retrieved on 19 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Ziegler, J.L. & Kanas, N. (1986). Coping with stress during internship. In C.D. Scott & J. Hawk (Eds.), Heal thyself: The health of health care professionals (pp 174 – 184). New York: Brunner/Mazel.