Stress Management & Relaxation

Stress can be caused by numerous factors and affects a person in many ways. As stress manifests, it can slow your brain's recovery from a stroke and cause bodily inflammation which may lead to pain, fatigue, and depression. There are many benefits of incorporating relaxation techniques and understanding and managing stress. Check out the video to learn about techniques and take the Life Changes and Stress Test at the bottom of this page.


What triggers our stress?

  • Health concerns

  • Family and friends

  • Money

  • Thinking about events of the past or the future


How can stress affect our mental and physical health?

Stress is common following a stroke and can be triggered by many challenges you are now facing post-stroke. Long-term activation of the body's stress response system may put you at risk for health troubles like:

  • digestive problems

  • anxiety

  • headaches

  • increasing spasticity

  • depression

  • sleep problems

  • weight gain

  • memory and concentration issues

  • high blood pressure

  • pain

According to the American Stroke Association (2018), 1/3-2/3 of stroke survivors are affected by depression and 20% are affected by anxiety. Depression may manifest as sadness, decreased energy, or lack of pleasure in activities you used to enjoy. Anxiety may include focusing on worries or concerns. Both can lead to changes in sleep and eating patterns and affect your physical and mental health and therefore your recovery.


Occupational Therapy and Mental Health

Occupational therapy is rooted in mental health and therefore can play a distinct role in helping you manage your mental health. As OTs, we know that participation in meaningful activities leads to improvements in both physical and mental health. OTs can work with you to decrease or manage stress in your everyday life, therefore decreasing your risk of experiencing depression or anxiety. Some examples of ways occupational therapists may address mental health include:

  • Relaxation exercises like deep breathing or muscle relaxation
  • Self-regulation exercises like chair yoga or mindfulness activities
  • We can discuss the importance of healthy daily routines
  • Ways to reduce or prevent stress and stress management skills
  • Coping skills to manage social and emotional well-being

What are some techniques to manage our stress and anxiety?

Stress management and relaxation techniques are important for your mental health toolbox. They can include quick and simple exercises that allow you to take a break during your day or refocus your energy when you begin to feel overwhelmed. They can also include more in-depth and focused exercises for more stressful or anxiety-producing situations. Taking the time to utilize these tools throughout your day can allow you to manage your stress in order to participate more fully in your everyday life.

Breathing Exercises: Quick and simple breathing exercises are important tools for individuals to utilize frequently. These are the easiest techniques for individuals to build into their day and use in any setting at any time. Remember to focus on each breath during your breathing exercises by visualizing the air as it enters and leaves your body.

  • Pursed lip breathing:
  • Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed.
  • Exhale through tightly pressed lips.
  • Square breathing:
  • Inhale for a count of 4.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4.
  • Exhale for a count of 4.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation works to relax your mind and your body by tensing and then relaxing various muscle groups from your head to your toes. The goal is to feel your muscles relax, slowly releasing the tension in your body. Following a stroke, you may not be able to actively tense certain muscle groups, so you may visualize the muscle tensing and relaxing instead.

Guided Imagery: Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that involves listening to a tape or using your own imagination to visualize a peaceful and positive environment. It can help distract you from the stressors you are experiencing or get into a more positive mindset. Either way, guided imagery can give your mind and body a break from the effects of stress.

  • Visualize a quiet, relaxing place of your choice (the beach, a dock, a mountaintop, your backyard) while listening to soft music.
Use your Senses: Stress relief can be achieved through sensory experiences. Sensory stress relief activities can be used individually or combined with other relaxation techniques to achieve the desired results. One example of using sensory experiences to manage stress is listening to your favorite music. Others include:

  • Hearing: Listening to the sound of waves crashing on the beach or a book on tape.
  • Vision: Watching your favorite movie or painting.
  • Smell: Burning candles or baking cookies.
  • Taste: Chewing gum or drinking a cup of tea.
  • Touch: Squeezing a stress ball or wearing a soft blanket.


Life Changes and Stress Test

The Life Changes and Stress Test examines the stressful parts of your life over the past 12 months and gives you a total score to determine if your stress is LOW, BORDERLINE, or HIGH. It is used as a self-check to help determine if you should seek stress-relieving techniques. This test is anonymous and your answers are not shared. 

Reference: Clark, et.al. (2015) Lifestyle Redesign: The intervention tested in the USC well elderly studies. AOTA Press.

Click here to complete the Life Changes and Stress Test


Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale (GSES)

The Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale is a self-report questionnaire that assesses one's perceived self-efficacy. It has been shown that depression in stroke survivors is commonly linked to self-efficacy. This scale can aid in predicting the ability to cope with and adapt to life's stressors.

Reference: Schwarzer, R., & Jerusalem, M. (1995). Self-efficacy measurement: Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale (GSES). In J. Weinman, S. Wright, & M. Johnston (Eds.), Measures in health psychology: A user's portfolio. Causal and control beliefs (pp. 35-37). NFER-Nelson.