How to Reduce Stress

Cardiogram and heart

For this week’s blog, we interview Barb Fletcher about how to reduce stress using quantifiable tools and metrics. Barb is currently the Executive Director of the Atlantic Institute on Aging, AND she has her own business! Prior to this, Barb worked for over 30 years in the health care field in the government and non-profit sectors. Barb’s role as a family caregiver went into overdrive 26 years ago when her 2 year old son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Since then, she has supported her aging parents and other family members as well, including her own spouse who developed Stage 4 kidney cancer (but thankfully has recovered). Her caregiving experiences have taught her that we all need to pay closer attention to our own wellbeing, otherwise we will not have anything to offer to others.

Barb, the truth is, everyone experiences stress. What level of stress is healthy and how do we know when our stress level is starting to hinder us?
Stress is normal in everyone’s life, and the level that each person can tolerate is different. What is important is how we respond to stress; it’s really about being aware of how you are feeling and how your body is reacting. When our body begins to react, we know that stress is getting the better of us. Symptoms begin to show such as anxiety, unclear thinking, difficulty making decisions, difficulty getting along with others, difficulty sleeping, and lack of energy, just to name a few.

What are some ways we can measure our stress level, on a quantitative base?
I believe our bodies are our best barometers. If our bodies begin to feel pain, fatigue or general unease it could be experiencing stress. One of the tools that I use to manage my stress is HeartMath. HeartMath is an emotional self-regulation system with the additional benefit of a biofeedback tool.

The biofeedback device links to a phone or computer and attaches easily and painlessly to your earlobe. The computer will display the levels of stress and ease in your body. You will be encouraged with tips that will appear on the screen. It can help quantify how well you are responding to stress. The importance of the HeartMath system is that you will have techniques that can be used throughout the day, yet not obvious to those around you.

Can you suggest some daily techniques that any of us can adopt to keep our stress levels low?
One of the things that I started earlier this year was something called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. It is a series of 6 practices for 10 minutes each, before you start your day. For me, that seems to work. There are many approaches: HeartMath, exercise, meditation, hobbies and the list goes on. These activities all help us to find our balance, manage our energy, and build resilience. The key is making time for these activities and committing to regularly investing that time and energy.

Can you elaborate a bit more about HeartMath?
It is a science based, energy management and composure-building tool originally developed in the 1980’s. HeartMath is designed to help people bring their physical, mental and emotional systems into alignment using the heart’s intuitive guidance. The training allows you to understand emotional triggers as well as strategies to lower “cortisol reactions”. The strategies can be practiced no matter where you find yourself and the bio-feedback tool supports your development in the program.

With the advancement of technology and wearable tech, do you have any recommendations for other devices that can help us monitor and manage our stress level?

I believe that anything that helps with focus will be valuable. For some people, technology is key. If you are goal- oriented, then improving based on your own statistics will challenge you. One of the features I have come to love the most is the feedback that wearable tech gives us. For example, my Fitbit tells me if I have walked 250 steps per hour. That is important because it shows I have had time to shift my focus just for a few minutes and for me that seems to help.

The bio-feedback tool described above which attaches to the ear is a form of wearable tech. As I mentioned for those who like to measure progress, the tool offers a series of practice levels that allow you to measure your progress against your previous practice.
Family caregivers in particular, are a group of people who by virtue of their role, experience extended periods of stress. What advice do you have for managing stress when it is prolonged and often comes from unpredictable events?

We can never be ready for everything that comes our way. What is most important is being self-aware of the impact of the stress on our bodies. Once we know it is happening, we can begin to build resilience by carving out time to focus on ourselves. I always remember that directive from flight attendants that you should put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others. Running out of gas will not serve you or the one you are caring for. This is even more important when the caregiving role is over a long time. Caregivers are often the last to reach out for help. They are devoted and committed to those they care for. However you MUST look after you!
Caregivers find it hard to carve out time. Any suggestions?

That is the best part of HeartMath. The strategies can be used wherever you are. You can take advantage of the 5 minutes while you’re waiting for your tea to steep or when you’re stopped at a traffic light. An easy technique that you can use to get started is called “Neutral”. Begin by focusing your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. Suggestion is to inhale 5 seconds, exhale 5 seconds (or what rhythm feels comfortable). Putting your attention around the heart area helps you center and gain composure.

Visit Barb at to join her mailing list and get her ‘Stress Strategy Guide I- Using Your Senses’. To learn more about HeartMath, you can contact Barb directly. Also, take the Perceived Stress Test on her website to see how well you’re currently coping!