Stress affects everybody every day, and for the most part stress offers the push we need to respond to a pressing situation. From trying to get out of the house on time to giving a presentation, stress is your response to physical, chemical, emotional or environmental factors. Whenever there's a sudden need for quick response, our bodies initiate a cascade of chemical reactions that sends our hearts racing and heightens all our senses. In a positive context, stresses can help keep our bodies strong and minds alert, but chronic stress can have devastating effects.
When you have chronic stress, your body produces too much cortisol and adrenalin—two major stress hormones. Cortisol is the worry hormone produced by fear and vigilance, and produces anxiety. Adrenalin is the fight-or-flight hormone which prepares the body to react physically to a threat.
If you fail to adapt to our stresses, your body can produce too much of these hormones for too long. This results in distress, which is literally an overdose of cortisol and adrenalin. The effects can result in physical symptoms and even changes that lead to stress-related illnesses.
Chronic stress has been linked, for example, to high blood pressure and heart disease. New research suggests that people whose blood pressure spikes in reaction to life's daily annoyances develop blockages in their arteries faster than those who can relax.
High stress levels also have been found to trigger asthma attacks and can precede a heart attack. Long episodes of stress can also have a negative impact on your immune system, weakening your resistance to infection as well as your ability to recover. Other physical manifestations of stress include headaches, insomnia, digestive trouble and acne. In fact, stress can worsen just about any symptom, whatever the original cause.
Stress can manifest itself in a range of symptoms. You may become more forgetful or find it harder to concentrate. Losing your sense of humor is another sign of an unhealthy amount of stress in your life, as are irritable moods and increased angry outbursts.
Stress can lead to an entirely different set of health problems if you seek relief from it by smoking, drinking alcohol, taking other drugs, or by eating more or less than usual. Fortunately there are a variety of natural, drug-free approaches to provide stress relief. What can you do to handle stress? The most important question to ask yourself when you feel trapped by intense stress is whether this is really worth dying for. Then, remind yourself that there is no one solution to handling stress. Everyone is different and you need to choose the stress relievers that work best for you. Here are some suggestions:
- Identify your triggers: Begin by first identifying all the sources of stress in your daily life. Keep a diary or make simple notes every time an event triggers your stress response. This will help you identify patterns in your perception of stressful events and circumstances that precede them. When you've gone through this exercise, make the effort, either with your employer, your partner or with yourself to change these patterns and reduce the amount of stress you currently face.
Ten Sure-fire Methods for Reducing Stress (<i>cont'd</i>)
- Modify your responses: While some research shows that our stress response is, in part, shaped by our early childhood experiences, experts also say that we can learn to modify our reactions to make stressful events less so. Such cognitive-behavioral therapy can be done with the help of a mental health professional in identifying your stress triggers or simply by remembering the simple prayer used by many 12-step programs: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
- Learn biofeedback: Even if you can't control the stress in your life, there are ways you can control your response to it. One method is to learn biofeedback. Biofeedback is a simple method in which electrodes are attached to your skin to record changes in body temperature, heart rate or brain waves in response to specific stimuli. These changes are converted into electronic sounds that change in pitch or frequency. With biofeedback, you can learn to control what would otherwise be involuntary reactions, and thereby "short-circuit" your stress response.
- Practice daily meditation: The goal in meditation is to quiet the mind by focusing your attention on a repeated sound, called a mantra, or image, without distraction, in order to enter a deeply relaxed state. Regular meditation practice can ease stress by helping you diffuse your triggers and allowing your body to relax. By clearing the mind, you are forced to "let go" of stressful events. If you notice mental distractions creeping back in, simply return to your mantra or image. One form of meditation called transcendental meditation, was first studied by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and written about in his book, "The Relaxation Response" (William Morrow and Company, 1975). Noting the method's ability to reduce stress, transcendental meditation was also described in the American Heart Association's journal, Stroke (March 2000), as an effective treatment of chronic high blood pressure. Experts suggest practicing meditation for at least 20 minutes once or twice a day, but you can enjoy mini-meditations throughout the day, whenever you feel stress getting a grip on you.
- Massage: Massage therapy has been shown in several studies to be an effective remedy for daily stress. Research among various groups of people who face a lot of daily stress, such as caregivers for the chronically ill, hospital workers and teachers, all conclude that a little massage therapy goes a long way toward relieving stress. One recent study from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire on patients undergoing bone-marrow transplants found that patients' stress test scores were significantly lower after receiving massage over the course of their treatment. Another study from the Department of Psychology at Toronto Hospital in Ontario Canada on a group of nurses showed that massage treatments not only relieved workplace stress, but improved overall mood as well.
Ten Sure-fire Methods for Reducing Stress (<i>cont'd</i>)
- Aromatherapy: Results of studies using aromatherapy indicate that it helps aid in relaxation and stress relief. One such study published in the May 1998 edition of Palliative Medicine documented the calming effects of aromatherapy on a group of mostly breast cancer patients receiving radical cancer treatment. Their high tension, stress and anxiety levels dropped significantly after treatment. Essential oils have been found to affect brainwaves and alter behavior, though their mechanism of action is not well understood. Scents of lavender and citrus are two of the most often used for stress-relief, so keep these essential oils on hand and rub some into the temples in times of stress.
- Yoga: Researchers from Kaleida Health-Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, NY, measured whether yoga or listening to classical music or nature sounds could relieve stress. While all approaches worked to some extent, yoga worked the fastest to lower the blood pressure of those people subjected to mental stress.
- Breathing exercises: Breathing or relaxation exercises are becoming increasingly embraced by mainstream medicine as among the best remedies for stress. Like meditation, these exercises are meant to give your mind and body a quick timeout. Whenever you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by daily events, stop and inhale deeply through your nose, then exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of 8. Practice this regularly throughout the day and you'll find yourself better able to diffuse your stressful moments.
- Aerobic exercise: Physical activity is a great stress buster, plus you'll be amazed by how much better you'll look and feel. In addition to distracting you from your troubles, exercise has an overall relaxing effect. Aerobic activity, in particular, can reduce anxiety, depression and tension. Brisk walking or bicycling for 20 to 30 minutes three to five times a week may be all that you need to help you manage stress more effectively.
- Develop a support network: Studies show that women are better able to cope with emotional stress than are men due, in part, to their stronger support networks. When stress becomes a problem, spending time with loved ones, meeting with friends or even caring for your pet may help. Or you may consider talking to a member of the clergy or a healthcare professional. All of these things activities can help get you through times of stress and related depression or anxiety.
The most important thing is to realize that you are not a victim of your circumstances. Rather, use these tools to change your perspective on the events in your life that make you feel stressed and take control of your reactions to them.