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How do I make intensive changes to manage stress?

When you follow an intensive lifestyle change program, like that recommended by Dr. Dean Ornish, you need to spend at least an hour of your day learning and using techniques that will help you respond to stress more positively when it occurs. These techniques include directed breathing, meditation, prayer, progressive relaxation, stretching, visualization, and yoga.

  • Try directed breathing. Practice inhaling slowly and filling your belly, then exhaling and drawing your belly button toward your spine. You can also learn three-part breathing. Take in air smoothly, as a flowing inhalation from your abdomen, then your chest, and then your throat. Reverse the process as you exhale.
  • Meditate. If you meditate daily, you will learn to focus on the present moment. Most people who meditate do so twice a day. When you concentrate on your breath or on a candle flame, for example, you clear your mind of thoughts and feelings that may get in the way of relaxation.
  • Pray. Prayer allows you to turn your problems over to a higher power. When you trust in your faith, you realize that you may be guided by something bigger than yourself. This belief may help you to stick with your intensive lifestyle changes.
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation. This is a series of exercises that teach you to first tense and then relax your muscle groups. Starting with your toes and feet, work your way up, stopping at each body part. First tighten them, then relax them.
  • Stretch. You may do any activity that gently extends the range of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. You can start with these three moves. Raise your arms way above your head. Bend over, with your knees slightly bent, and reach for the ground so you feel a gentle stretch from your neck to your heels. Shrug your shoulders.
  • Use visualization. This technique teaches you how to use your imagination to help reduce stress. You focus on a positive experience you have had or would like to have. For instance, visualize yourself on a beach. See the sun, hear the waves, feel the salty air on your skin. Or pick any time or place where you were truly relaxed and your breathing was calm. You can use this mental experience to achieve a new kind of peace.
  • Try yoga. This ancient Indian practice involves breathing, relaxation, and stretching in a series of postures. To find a class near you, look in your yellow pages under Yoga or call your local YMCA.

You have to choose a method that works for you. Choose one or more stress-management techniques that you know you'll stick with on an everyday basis.

Practicing some of these techniques, such as yoga and meditation, may help you control your blood pressure and lower your heart rate, even when things are not going the way you'd like.

Taking action each day to manage stress is only one component of the intensive lifestyle changes that are recommended by experts such as Dr. Dean Ornish to reverse the effects of heart disease. The other components of an intensive lifestyle program include exercising every day, eating a very-low-fat vegetarian diet, stopping smoking, and getting support from others. To gain benefits similar to those realized by those who participated in Dr. Ornish's studies, you must take action on all the components.