Mark Twain supposedly said, “I have lived through many disasters, and a few of them actually happened.”

If you can relate to that statement, then you ’re probably well aware of how easily our fertile imaginations can crank up our stress levels. Here are two simple steps you can take to reduce stress:

1. Notice when you are becoming stressed.
2. Interrupt the cycle before your stress spins out of control.

Notice when you are becoming stressed. We often don’t fully realize how stressed or anxious we are until the feelings are so strong that they interrupt whatever we’re doing. By the time that you have a headache, or start snacking when you are not hungry, or lose your temper with yourself or someone else, it’s hard to get off that “stress treadmill.”

So how can you start noticing earlier when stress is arising?

Here are some typical signs to watch for:

1. Recurrent thoughts (Oh no, not him/her/this issue again! How could I/he/she/they be so stupid? This is always so hard/scary/frustrating for me! Something is bound to go wrong . . . etc., etc.).

2. Nervous or irritable habits, such as tapping your fingers or feet, biting your nails, chewing the inside of your cheek, furrowing your brows.

3. Your breath becomes more shallow or more rapid.

4. Your muscles tighten (typically your jaw, neck, chest, stomach or buttocks), your appetite changes, the hairs rise on your arms or the back of your neck.

Even if you don’t catch yourself the first dozen (or few dozen!) times, eventually you will start noticing your own personal stress signals if you keep reminding yourself. (And please remind yourself gently, so this doesn’t itself become a new source of stress.)

You can also learn a lot by observing other people as they become stressed. This will give you valuable insights and build your awareness about your own stress patterns.

Interrupt the stress cycle. Once you realize that you are becoming stressed, you have the opportunity to interrupt the cycle. This is like turning off the ignition when your car starts to overheat . . . except the location of our on/off switch for stress is harder to find.

There are many ways to prevent your stress from escalating, and you’ll need to experiment to find what works best for you. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Press your feet into the floor. This will ground you by shifting your focus more into your body and away from your mind, where the stress wheels are spinning. If you like, imagine that you are a tree and your feet are the roots – exhale tension out of your roots into the ground, and inhale calming energy back up through your roots.

2. Consciously slow down your breathing, with slow deep inhalations and full exhalations. Again, this will bring you back into your body, settle your energy and give your mind something to focus on besides its anxieties.

3. Create some distance between you and your stress by observing yourself with friendly curiosity. Imagine that you are watching someone else – preferably someone you care about. This will help you see patterns and view yourself more compassionately – instead of compounding your stress with self-criticism.

4. Incorporate humor as much as possible; any lightness you can generate will help. Be creative! For example, greet your stress: “Hello, stress, here you are again, I see. What awful things are you planning today? How could we make this difficult situation even worse? (Or, how could we turn this wonderful time into something truly awful?) Don’t hold back, stress, let’s go for it!”

Remember that “simple” is not the same as “easy.” The concept of noticing when you are stressed and then interrupting the stress cycle is simple but it’s much easier said than done. After all, if it were easy to reduce your stress levels, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

Keep in mind that stress reduction is like any other kind of exercise. The more you practice, the stronger your “stress reduction muscles” will become and the better prepared you’ll be when you really need them.

Play with these ideas and you will see positive results. If you need help and support, there are lots of options out there, including:

1. Books and Internet resources.

2. Classes and DVDs for yoga, tai chi, qi gong, meditation and other mind-body approaches to exercise and philosophy.

3. Professionals such as coaches, therapists and body workers.

Finally, don’t let your stress reduction efforts become stressful! Remember that no matter how many times you don’t do it perfectly, life will present you with lots more opportunities to learn how best to reduce your stress.

Author's Bio: 

Faith Halter is a holistic stress reduction practitioner who helps her clients achieve lasting reductions in their stress levels. Faith offers stress reduction coaching by telephone, as well as craniosacral therapy and assisted yoga in person. She loves creative problem solving and is passionate about helping her clients achieve their goals. Contact Faith or find out more about what she does by visiting her web site at . As of August 2007, Faith will be based in Arlington, Virginia within easy reach of Washington, D.C. and nearby Maryland. Besides individual sessions, Faith is available for lectures and workshops.