You've put it off for weeks. But that pit in your stomach reminds you -- the work presentation or final exam you've been dreading is tomorrow. There's no way around it. You're going to have to do a whole lot of work in a very short period of time. As you drive to the local coffee shop to stock your body up on caffeine for a long night of work, it hits you -- stress. Stress is a natural part of our fight-or-flight response to fear, and lucky for you, it can make you more productive. But you should beware of overusing that stress response. Eventually it will backfire. It will make you more susceptible to illness and even less productive in the long haul.
During stress, your brain sends messages to your body to release certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, your muscles to tense up and your breathing to become short and shallow. Your digestive and immune systems shut down so that you can focus all your body's energy on the task at hand.
Given that your immune system temporarily shuts down and that your blood pressure rises, it makes obvious sense that frequent episodes of stress will gradually wear your body down. Your immune system becomes weak, which makes you ultra vulnerable to bacterial infections and viruses. Evidence also reveals that stress contributes to heart disease. Stress hormones will actually cause the body to increase blood clotting; therefore, stress can bring on a heart attack [source: BBC News]. Not only can being overstressed hurt you physically, it's also dangerous to your mental health. There is reason to believe that stress can trigger episodes of many disorders, including panic disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Have you ever taken a "mental health" day off from work simply to relieve stress? If so, you're not alone. As many as a quarter of people in the workplace have taken such days off from work [source: Washington Post]. More and more people are experiencing high levels of stress in their lives. According to sources, work is the biggest stress factor for adults [source: AIS]. Work provides a significant source of stress for over 60 percent of people in the U.S. [source: Washington Post].
Now that you know stress can have dangerous consequences, are you ready to take a step back and relax? Take a deep breath and go to the next page for advice on stress relief.
Exercise and Muscle Relaxation
You've heard it before: One of the most effective stress reducers is regular exercise. Evidence shows that those who are in good physical shape don't have as many problems with stress [source: University of Iowa]. Have you ever noticed that as you exercise your mind turns to upbeat thoughts? That's because exercise releases endorphins, chemicals that promote good moods and positive thinking. Exercise also provides a good physical outlet for releasing that energy that stress builds up inside of you. In addition, exercise increases blood flow to your brain, allowing it more oxygen, which has numerous advantages, including promoting clear thinking. Various kinds of exercise work to reduce stress, so you can take your pick. Walking, running and playing sports all relieve stress. To get the stress-relief benefits, experts recommend setting aside a half hour a day for three days a week for exercise.
Massages can also significantly reduce stress by releasing tension in your muscles. Not only can a massage help with stress, but studies have shown that it can help boost your immune system, which may have been weakened during stress [source: MayoClinic]. Not all of us can fork over the money or the time for a professional massage. Luckily, there are a few methods of massage you can perform on yourself. You can give yourself an effective and stress-relieving massage on your hands, feet, face, arms, legs and shoulders. Gentle circular motions on your muscles for a few minutes at a time will help relieve their tension.
A physician named Edmund Jacobson invented a process in the early 20th century called progressive relaxation, which is proven to reduce stress. As with a self-massage, progressive muscle relaxation is something you can do all by yourself. Start with your head and work your way down to your feet, or do the opposite, as long as you generally go in one direction. If you start with your feet, focus on one foot at a time. Here are the steps:
- Gradually tense the muscles in your foot until you are contracting your muscles tightly.
- Keep the muscles contracted for about five or 10 seconds.
- Relax your foot.
- Pay attention to the release of pressure from the foot for a few seconds.
- Repeat these steps on the other foot and then move your way up your body, focusing on different muscle areas at a time [source: Helpguide.org].
In addition to these techniques, changing the way we breathe and taking breaks to practice meditation can go a long way in helping us relax. On the next page, we'll take a look at deep breathing and how to find your "happy place."
Breathing and Meditation Techniques
If you pay attention, you'll notice that most of the time, we breathe with our chests. During times of stress, when our breath is short, we can relax and take in more oxygen if we breathe using our diaphragms, a muscle below our ribcage. When we do this, the chest takes in more blood, which is good for heart functions. Like other muscles, the diaphragm needs exercise to get strong. The American Medical Student Association offers these suggestions for practicing diaphragmatic breathing:
- Place your hands on your chest and stomach.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose. Make sure that the hand on your stomach rises and the hand on your chest doesn't.
- Breathe out very slowly and then clench your abdomen muscles.
- Repeat these steps four times [source: AMSA].
Although often practiced by people in religious orders, meditation can be a useful method to relieve stress regardless of one's beliefs. Here are a few different kinds of meditations that supposedly relieve stress:
- Finding a happy place: With this form of meditation, you use your imagination to escape and relax. Think of a place where you felt relaxed -- on a dock at the lake, in the hot sun at the beach or with your friends and family, for example. Try to imagine that place in the greatest detail possible, down to the sounds, smells and textures. When you take a few minutes to really immerse yourself in this meditation, it can serve as an excellent relaxation technique.
- Repeating a mantra: Many religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, use mantras. A mantra is a repeated word or short phrase that serves as a relaxing prayer. For example, a Jewish mantra is "shalom," which means peace. But your mantra need not be religious. When our lives become busy, it can get harder to concentrate on one thing at a time without other thoughts popping into our heads. This is when mantras become useful to clear our minds.
- Mindfulness meditation: In this kind of meditation, commonly associated with Buddhism, you focus in on the present moment. To accomplish this, concentrate on your own breathing. Through practice, you can get better until calming your thoughts becomes easy.
More Great Links
- "How Stress Can Make You Sick, Sydney Researchers Explain." Medical News Today. Dec. 6, 2005. (Mar. 7, 2008) http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/34547.php
- "Learn the Art of Self-Massage: Relax Yourself." Reader's Digest. July 12, 2005. (March 7, 2008) http://www.rd.com/healthy-living/health/learn-the-art-of-self-massage/article.html
- AIS. "America's No. 1 Health Problem." American Institute of Stress. (March 7, 2008) http://www.stress.org
- AMSA. "Health Hint: Breathing Exercises." American Medical Student Associations. (March 7, 2008) https://www.amsa.org/healingthehealer/breathing.cfm
- Ballantyne, Coco. "Fact or Fiction?: Stress Causes Gray Hair." Scientific American. Oct. 24, 2007. (March 7, 2008) http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=fact-or-fiction-stress-causes-gray-hair
- BBC News. "How stress triggers heart attack." BBC News. Feb. 28, 2006. (March 7, 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4754658.stm
- Granath, J., Ingvarsson, S, von Thiele U, Lundberg, U.. "Stress management: a randomized study of cognitive behavioral therapy and yoga." Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 2006;35(1):3-10. (March 7, 2008) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=16500773&ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVAbstractPlus
- Helpguide.org. "Stress Relief." Helpguide.org. (March 7, 2008) http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_relief_meditation_yoga_relaxation.htm
- MayoClinic. "Massage: A relaxing method to relieve stress and pain." (March 7, 2008) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/massage/SA00082
- MayoClinic: Relaxation techniques: Learn way sot calm your stress." (March 7, 2008) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/relaxation-technique/SR00007
- University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. "Exercise Reduces Stress." (March 7, 2008) http://www.uihealthcare.com/topics/stressandcope/stre3212.html
- Washington Post. "Facts on Stress." The Washington Post. Jan. 23, 2007. (March 7, 2008) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/19/AR2007011901430_pf.html
- "Meditation for Health Purposes." National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Institute of Health. (March 7, 2008) http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm