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Three quick tips to relieve stress

December 12, 2012 - ARCHIVE

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Here are three quick techniques you can practice anywhere to relieve stress
Holiday stress taking a toll on you? Too long a line at the store? Too much time wasted trying to find parking at the mall?

If you become anxious around the holidays, try these tips from Donald McCown, director of West Chester University’s Stress Reduction Center/Center for Contemplative Studies.

You can practice these techniques anywhere: while standing in a queue, after you finally find that parking spot at the mall, during your too-short lunch "hour."


  1. Relaxing Sighs
    Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, making a quiet, relaxing sigh as you exhale. Take long, slow, gentle breaths that raise and lower your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Focus on the sound and feeling of the breath. Repeat three to six times.
  2. The Soles of the Feet
    When you're in a stressful situation (or anticipating one) use this short practice to bring yourself into the present moment.
    • If you're sitting, get comfortable and place the soles of both feet on the floor. If you’re standing, stand in a natural posture, bend the knees slightly and allow the weight of the arms to pull the shoulders down. If you're walking, slow your pace and, again, allow the arms to help relax the shoulders.
    • Allow your breath to flow naturally. Feel the emotions of the moment, being aware of whatever thoughts and body sensations arise, without restricting or attempting to change them. Simply observe.
    • Now, move your attention to the soles of your feet. Feel your heels on the floor or inside your shoes; feel the curves of the arches, the balls of the feet, and the toes - perhaps moving the toes to make them more present in sensation.
    • After a moment or two, notice again the quality of thoughts and body sensations.
    • When you feel as if you can respond and not react to the stressful situation, remember that you can choose to disengage or to respond with clarity and creativity.
  3. The object of this practice is not to stamp out strong emotions but to work with them, since they may help you craft a positive solution or helpful response.
    You can rehearse this practice to gain more confidence in its use by  imagining scenarios from the past (or the future) and working with the emotions and body sensations that are generated just by thought.

  4. The Three-Minute Breathing Space
    The breathing space provides a way to step out of automatic pilot mode and reconnect with the present moment.
    • Minute 1: Awareness
      Take a pause and close your eyes, if you want. Bring your attention to your body: Notice bodily sensations (e.g., heaviness, lightness, temperature, breath rate, heart rate, etc.). Then bring your attention to your thoughts: Is your mind calm? Or are thoughts racing? What's the quality of thought? (dense, light, fleeting, sticky, etc.). Next, notice your mood: How do you feel in the moment? (peaceful, anxious, joyful, sad, etc.) Acknowledge and register your experience without judging it, even if it is unwanted.
    • Minute 2: Gathering
      Now gently bring your attention to your breathing, to each in-breath and to each out-breath as they follow, one after the other. When your attention is drawn away, simply notice that, and gently bring your focus back to your breath.
    • Minute 3: Expanding
      Expand the field of your awareness beyond the breath, back to the sensations in the body, then to thoughts, and then to mood. Check in: Right now, how do you feel in your body, your mind, your mood?
    • McCown suggests using cues throughout the day to help remind yourself to incorporate these techniques into your daily routine. "You could take three to six relaxing sighs at such cues as every red light when you’re driving, each time the phone rings, or when you're waiting for an elevator or in a line."

Donald McCown joined West Chester’s Master of Public Health faculty in August 2011. He is the Integrative Health program director and advisor for the Integrative Health track within the M.P.H. as well as the graduate certificate in Integrative Health. The coauthor of New World Mindfulness and Teaching Mindfulness, he was previously director of the Mindfulness at Work Program at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. He has extensive professional training in mindfulness-based stress reduction through the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

1 Freely adapted from: Singh, N.N., Wahler, R.G., Adkins, A.D,, & Myers, R.E. (2003). Soles of the feet: A mindfulness-based self-control intervention for aggression by an individual with mild mental retardation and mental illness. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24:158-169.

2 Freely adapted from Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G., & Teasdale, J.D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse. New York: Guilford Press.