Professional Practice Skills

PPS-20: Stress Management

(Adapted from MPS 37, Don Woods 2003)


Pre-class assignment

  1. Read sections What is It?, Why Do It?, New Concepts, How to  Do It, and Learning Objectives
  2. Take the Homes - Rahe stress inventory to measure your stress level.
  3. Be able to describe three methods for dealing with stress.


What is It?

Stress, as all good mechanical engineers know, is force divided by area.  Unfortunately, the physicians and psychologists have co-opted the term.  Instead of “forces”, they talk about “stressors”, which are events or conditions that affect the human mind and body.  We used force per unit area to define engineering stress; they use magnitudes of stressors with respect to time as a measure of physical/psychological stress.  For example, the Holmes - Rahe stress inventory is a way to quantify stressors in a 12 month period. 


New Concepts

Stressors, Stress Management

Why Do It?

We know that if our engineering stress exceeds the capacity of our system, damage, poor performance, and failure can occur.  Likewise, physical/psychological stress has been linked to poor performance, poor decisions, and physical disease.  Most professionals carry significant responsibility and stress in their lives.


Stress Management techniques have been found that can reduce the negative consequences of stress.   During this unit, you can take some of these techniques for a test drive, and see which you find useful.


How to Do It

Let’s consider snow on a roof as an analogy for stress in your life.  To deal with large snowfalls, the roof designer has two main approaches.  One, they can build the roof with really stout materials and lots of extra support.  Two, they can use a pitch and materials that tend to shed the snow, so less weight has to be supported.  Stress Management uses a similar two pronged approach.


We’ll suggest a number of techniques that people have found useful to either increase your stress carrying capacity, or shed stressors as they arrive.  We are going to be very brief in our presentation, since in-depth descriptions are readily available in books and on the Web.


Focus on Problems You Can Control

Many of the things people worry about are outside of their control.  Take your problems and figure out what parts you can affect, and let the rest take care of themselves. 


For example, in your fraternity leadership role, you are concerned that recruiting will be down because the national organization instituted a no alcohol policy, and the latest term statistics show that your seniors’ grades are the lowest in the Greek system.


In this scenario, you have no control over national policy, and no one has control over seniors’ study habits.  Rather than use time and energy worrying, just take the no alcohol policy and the bad grades as givens and move on.  Find areas in which you do have control to invest your energy.


Do Something Physical (Regularly)

Regular exercise is well known for helping to get rid of the effects of stress and building up your system to be able to better handle stress.  This can take the form of aerobic activities (running, swimming, stair climbing, tennis, basketball) or strength training (not 12 ounce curls, alcohol appears to be a poor long term stress reducer).


To keep it regular, find a way to build it into your schedule.  Some people find that exercise partners help maintain motivation.  This can be with regularly scheduled racquetball games, aerobics classes, or bike outings.  Others find that early morning hours or lunchtime can be scheduled more easily.  The best exercise program is the one that you actually do.


Take Advantage of the Relaxation Response

Much of the time we are sitting at the traffic light of life with the clutch partially engaged.  You know that continually riding the clutch of a manual transmission car will cause it to burn out.  Likewise, you need to learn to disengage your own clutch when you aren’t using it or you too will burn out.


Disengaging the clutch means activating your body’s relaxation response.  There are a number of ways to do this, but two good and easy ones are relaxed breathing and muscle contraction/relaxation.


For muscle contraction/relaxation, contract some muscle (you can work from your feet to your head), hold it taut (clutch engaged) for 3-6 seconds while remembering to breathe, then let the tension go (clutch disengaged).  For a quick version, just use the facial muscles and tongue. 


You may have heeded the advice to take a couple of deep breaths to help dissipate feelings of anger or stress.  Relaxation breathing can be much more involved than that.  Stressed people tend to take shallow breaths while holding tension in their trunk muscles.  In diaphragmatic breathing, you allow your abdomen to distend as you inhale slowly through your nose.  This is done while sitting straight or lying down.  This should be done for 4-10 breaths.  When combined with relaxation of facial muscles, this makes an effective technique that can be done anywhere.



Sleep is one of those great unsolved mysteries of life.  Humans know more about the behavior of sub-atomic particles than why mammals spend so much of their time asleep.  We do know that lack of sleep has consequences.  Mice deprived of sleep die in a few weeks.  College students deprived of sleep don’t die, but they tend to get cranky, drift off in class, and do more poorly on tests.


Scheduling time to sleep is probably the single most important thing you can do to reduce stress.  Naps in class may help some, but you don’t usually get to the REM (rapid eye movement) stage that you need.  Pushing all your sleep to the weekend is not as good as spreading it out more uniformly.


Encourage Yourself

Negative self talk (I can’t do this stuff.  It sucks to be me.  Everybody else is smarter.) is not so very helpful.  While you should have a sense of your own limitations (don’t try to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle), beating yourself up over grades or relationships doesn’t do any good.  Instead, celebrate your successes and look for the positive things you can say to yourself.


You probably don’t need to go all the way to Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley (“I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."), but reminding yourself that you do have a range of talents and are working hard helps keep you in a positive rut rather than a negative one.  If you are reading this handout, you have the skills.   Adding a positive “Can Do” attitude through positive self-talk will only help. 


Author Commentary: We are currently passing through a period of popularity for irony.  Unfortunately television (comedy and commentary) is one of the few places where cynicism and sarcasm sell well.  Negative attitudes are much less effective for store clerks, Olympic athletes, or manufacturers of heart valves.


Preparation Prevents Stressors

A little contingency planning (or planning in general) goes a long way toward minimizing some unpleasant stressors that can crop up.  I have watched a number of student groups scrambling and sweating, because their PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t load or display.  Stressors like these go away with a little preparation/planning.


This topic is really part time management and project planning, topics covered more thoroughly in other units, so we’ll limit ourselves to two brief comments.  Think about the worst case scenarios before the event, and have some plans ready.  When you do get blindsided, chalk it up to experience and make sure that one never happens again.


Say No

Eventually (and perhaps already) your schedule will get full.  At this point, you have to be able say “No” to some activities.  This can be very hard when the people requesting your time are friends, your boss, or professors.


Often a direct “No” is better than trying to make an excuse.  The requesting person will try to find a work-around for your excuse, but there is not much you can say to “No”.  You can still be polite by thanking them for considering you or by suggesting someone else for the task, but you don’t want to leave room for discussion.


Build and Use Your Support System

Support can come from people in many areas of your life.  Consider the people you know in the following categories.  Family, Friends, Religion, Social Groups, Service Groups, Neighbors, Co-workers, Hobbies, Mentors, Professional Organizations.  When things get tough, the people who may be there to help will come from this network.  It is a good idea to maintain that network during the times when you don’t need help.


Building and maintaining a network requires that you are willing to contribute without expecting reciprocity.  Thus, it will cost you in terms of time and energy.  Many people feel that the rewards are worth the effort.


Positive Addictions

People self-medicate with food, alcohol, and drugs to deal with stress, but find that the “cure” exacerbates the disease.  Some activities can be useful forms of self medication.  Often the activity requires enough of your attention that it can give you a needed respite from stressors. 


For many people this is called a hobby.  It may be furniture building, painting watercolors, playing the piano, target shooting, volunteering at the senior center, or playing Tetris.  You can have an avocation as well as a vocation, and even if your paintings aren’t likely to hang in the Louvre, they’ll look good on the refrigerator, and you will be keeping yourself healthy.


Keep Your Perspective

The second World War dumped a lot of British sailors into the ocean in lifeboats (mostly courtesy of German U boats).  Survival rates were higher for the older sailors than for younger sailors despite the additional years of drinking, smoking, and getting tattoos.  The reason turned out to be that the old guys didn’t give up as easily.  They had been through a lot of things already in their lives and just kept plugging along, while the younger ones were more likely to see no hope.


Perspective comes with distance from a problem.  Try to step back and see how the problem fits into the bigger scheme of things.  Will it cause the end of civilization?  Have other people gotten through a problem like this?


Reward Yourself with Breaks

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy (with high blood pressure).  When you complete a task (or devote a set time to a task), reward yourself.  After watching dolphin shows, we are apt to relate rewards to food, but in this case the reward should be a de-stressing one.  Caffeine, refined sugars, and unsaturated fats (coffee and a donut) tend to be stressors. 


You could eat an apple, do five minutes of stretching, practice your relaxed breathing, play a game of Freecell, or chat with a friend.  You’ll probably have your own favorites.


Learning Objectives

Name 6 relaxation techniques

Practice several relaxation techniques

Select at least 3 techniques



In-Class Exercise

Exercise 1


            List three things you do to reduce stress

As a Group

            Describe your preferred stress reducers and listen to other’s ideas

Exercise 2


For the problem statement presented by the instructor

  • List which aspects of the problem you cannot control
  • Describe what aspects you can control

As a Group

  • Compare your responses


Exercise 3

Relaxation response practice


Exercise 4


  • List phrases you use for negative self talk
  • List phrases you currently use for positive self talk
  • List phrases you may want to start using for positive self talk


Exercise 5

As a Group

Brainstorm ways to say “no”

  • When asked out by someone you like but don’t want to date.
  • When your boss gives you another task, and your schedule is already full.


Exercise 6

As an Individual

Fill out the chart below


Relaxation Technique

Not for Me

May Work

Will Try

Currently Use

Focus on Problems you Can Control





Do Something Physical (Regularly)





Take Advantage of the Relaxation Response










Encourage Yourself





Preparation Prevents Stressors





Say No





Build and Use Your Support System





Positive Addictions





Keep Your Perspective





Reward Yourself with Breaks







Stress Management

Assignment 1


Develop and describe a plan to manage your stress that can be used for the remainder of the school year and for the next school year.


The plan should

  • Be in the form of a Memo to the instructor
  • Use 3-5 of the techniques described in this unit
  • Be specific as to the actions and how they will be accomplished (e.g. “Exercise more” is inadequate.  “Swim with Jane from 7:15-8:00 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday” is much better)
  • Be specific as to how you will assess compliance with the plan.





Actions and Assessment:

Excellent (10): 3-5 techniques are used and all implementations are specific.  All Assessment is measurable and verifiable.

Mediocre:(5)    Fewer than three techniques, or some descriptions of actions and assessment are vague.

Weak:(0)         No techniques from unit or all actions and assessments are vague.


Excellent (10): Neat, mistake free (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.) Clear memo format with To, From, Date, Subject.  One page or less.

Mediocre:(5)    Poor format with grammar/structure errors.

Weak:(0)         Several mistakes and/or missing format.