LEARN TO RELAX
The De-stress Solution
Few people can say that they live stress-free. Of course, not all stress is bad. Some stress can prompt actions or solutions to problems. But long-term, stress that never has an outlet and builds up nonstop can lead to both emotional and physical problems as well as worsen any health issues you already have. Stress can be a particularly difficult problem when it’s relentless and you face it from all sides, at work and at home.
Acute stress, the most common kind, comes from those little bumps in the road of daily life. Emotionally, you’re likely to react by being irritable, anxious or angry. You might develop physical symptoms like tension headaches or back or jaw pain. You could feel like your stomach is tied up in knots and lose your appetite, or get indigestion if you eat.
Frequent acute stress is stress that comes in a predictable pattern. You might feel it if you’re a “warrior,” the type of person who burns the candle on both ends, lives life in a frenzy and feels like you can’t get a good grip on the demands you face, making you angry and short-tempered. You might also feel it if you’re a “worrier,” always fearful and filled with ceaseless worry, which leads you to be anxious and possibly even depressed. Physical symptoms can range from tension headaches or migraines to high blood pressure and even heart disease.
Chronic stress is the type of stress that eats away at you, day after day, year after year. It can have a draining effect on your body. Usually the source of this stress is a very deep and pervasive quality of life issue, such as living during circumstances that prevent you from feeling secure and content and from which you can’t see a way out.
Relaxation techniques can help with managing acute stress, whereas chronic stress may require professional help from a therapist to avoid the worst outcomes, such as heart attack, stroke, violence and suicide.
Stress affects almost every aspect of your health, some of which may surprise you.
Your Musculoskeletal System
The back or neck twinge you get in reaction to stress is from your muscles tensing and tightening. With sudden acute stress, they may tighten all at once, and then relax when the stress passes. With chronic stress, they can be in a perpetual state of tension, reports the American Psychological Association, and start a cascade of related issues like migraines.
Your Respiratory System
Stress affects your breathing. It can lead to the fast breathing of hyperventilation and panic attacks and make it harder for people with asthma or other lung diseases to get needed oxygen.
Your Cardiovascular System
Stress affects your heart and blood vessels. With short-term stress, the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are unleashed and lead to a rise in your heart rate and stronger contractions of your heart muscle. Blood vessels dilate and raise blood pressure.
With long-term stress, these effects on your heart become constant, negatively impacting heart health and raising your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a heart attack or a stroke. Women are at a greater risk of heart disease after menopause because the body stops producing protective levels of the hormone estrogen.
Your Endocrine System
When those stress hormones kick in, your liver makes more glucose, a danger for people with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Your Gastrointestinal Tract
Stress can lead to overeating, especially of unhealthy “comfort foods.” It can lead to heartburn, acid reflux and a worsening of both. Tummy upsets can worsen, too, with more severe stomach pain and possibly ulcers. Diarrhea or constipation can become issues.
Your Reproductive System
In men, chronic stress can disrupt testosterone and sperm production, possibly leading to erectile dysfunction or impotence. In women, stress can disrupt menstrual cycles and increase monthly discomfort and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). During menopause, stress can make the normal physical changes harder to cope with, adding to any change-of-life stress that already exists. Stress can diminish sexual desire in both sexes.
In contrast to the body’s stress response, the relaxation response slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure and decreases oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones. Because relaxation is the opposite of stress, you may be able to creating a relaxation response through relaxation techniques and counteract the negative effects of stress, both emotional and physical.
Methods used to relax usually combine breathing and focused attention—thinking about pleasing thoughts and images to calm the mind and the body. Examples of relaxation techniques are autogenic training, biofeedback, deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive relaxation and self-hypnosis. Mind and body practices, such as meditation and yoga, are very popular and effective.
The goal of every technique is to consciously produce the body’s natural relaxation response—slower breathing, lower blood pressure and a feeling of calm and well-being. Many people use relaxation techniques as part of a comprehensive plan to treat, prevent or reduce symptoms of a variety of conditions beyond stress, such as high blood pressure, pain, insomnia, depression, headaches, anxiety and more.
According to a National Health Interview Survey, 12.7 percent of US adults use deep-breathing exercises, 2.9 percent use progressive relaxation and 2.2 percent use guided imagery for health purposes. Relaxation techniques are very accessible: Most of those people used a book rather than seeing a practitioner. Indeed, according to the National Institutes of Health, most relaxation techniques can be self-taught and practiced, often with a book or DVD.
In addition, escaping to a yoga class or turning on soothing music can be fun and work wonders, but may not always be convenient. So knowing relaxation basics, like simple deep breathing, enables you to practice on your own schedule and ease stress just about any time and anywhere. Just consciously slow your breathing and focus on taking regular and deep breaths.
Ready for more ideas? Here is a detailed look at three approaches that work very well for easing stress:
Meditation. This is considered a mind-body practice in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Meditation is actually an umbrella term. There are many approaches, with most stemming from ancient traditions, and they include transcendental meditation (TM), mindfulness meditation and Zen Buddhist meditation. In its simplest form, meditation involves focusing your attention often on a word or sound that you repeat to rechannel your thoughts, feelings and sensations and observe them in a nonjudgmental way to achieve in a state of enhanced calmness and balance.
To try mediating on your own, follow these four steps:
- Pick a quiet location with as few distractions as possible.
- Get into a comfortable position—you can be sitting, lying down or even standing.
- Choose a word, thought or object to focus your attention on. This step is based on the TM technique to prevent distracting thoughts from entering your mind in order to achieve a state of relaxed awareness.
- Let distractions come and go without judging them, but bring your mind back to the subject of your focus when you feel it drifting away.
Yoga. This mind-body practice originated in ancient India. There are various styles of yoga, which typically combines physical postures with breathing techniques and meditation or relaxation, so it offers physical as well as relaxation benefits. Hatha yoga is the one most commonly practiced in the US. Yoga is generally low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor. There are organizations that register yoga teachers and training programs that have complied with a certain curriculum and educational standards, such as the Yoga Alliance.
Tai chi. This practice, which originated in China as a martial art, is another mind-body practice. It’s often called “moving meditation” because you move your body slowly, gently and with awareness as you breathe deeply.
Tai chi incorporates the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (opposing forces within the body) and qi (a vital energy or life force). Practicing tai chi is said to support a healthy balance of yin and yang, thereby aiding the flow of qi. There are different styles of tai chi, but they’re all based on relaxed, graceful movements.
As a low-impact, weight-bearing, aerobic exercise, it also offers physical conditioning, muscle strength, coordination, flexibility and balance.
Here are other relaxation techniques worth investigating, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):
- Autogenic training. You focus on the physical sensation of your own breathing or heartbeat and picture your body as warm, heavy, and/or relaxed.
- Guided imagery. You focus on pleasant images to replace negative or stressful feelings.
- Progressive relaxation. You focus on tightening and relaxing each muscle group, from your toes to your neck, possibly incorporating guided imagery and breathing exercises.
- Self-hypnosis. You focus on a phrase or nonverbal cue called a suggestion.
Biofeedback. Once available only through a health facility, this technique relies on using an electronic device, now made in home versions, to teach you how to consciously produce the relaxation response.
Relaxation techniques have been studied for their ability to ease many health conditions, but often these studies have been small and at times results are conflicting. Still, relaxing might fit into an overall management plan for heart disease and stopping smoking, two of the challenges we’ve talked about on the site:
- Heart disease and heart symptoms. When a cardiac rehabilitation program (rehab following a heart attack or other event) was combined with relaxation response training, it led to significant reductions in blood pressure and lipid levels and better psychological functioning when compared to participants’ status before the program. When combined with other lifestyle changes and standard medical care, relaxation techniques may reduce the risk of recurrent heart attacks.
- High blood pressure. Progressive muscle relaxation may slightly lower blood pressure, though not enough to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke or other health issues due to high blood pressure.
- Smoking cessation. Relaxation exercises may help reduce cigarette cravings when you’re trying to quit.
Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people. According to NCCAM, if you have a medical condition, talk to your healthcare provider before starting a technique that involves more than deep breathing. If you have epilepsy, a psychiatric condition or a history of abuse or trauma, talk to your healthcare provider before starting any approach. People with heart disease should talk to their healthcare provider before doing progressive muscle relaxation. Relaxation techniques are often used as part of a treatment plan and not as the only approach for potentially serious health conditions. Never use a relaxation technique to replace conventional medical care or to postpone seeing your healthcare provider about pain or any other medical condition.
When Choosing A Practitioner
There is no formal credential or license required for practicing or teaching most relaxation techniques, states NCCAM. However, the techniques may be used or taught by licensed professionals, including physicians, recreational therapists and psychologists. Ask about the training and experience of the practitioner or instructor you are considering for any complementary health approach.
NCCAM suggests these additional tips:
- If you need names of practitioners in your area, first ask your healthcare provider.
- Find out as much as you can about any potential practitioner, including his/her education, training, licensing and certifications, credentials that vary tremendously from state to state and from discipline to discipline.
- Find out whether he/she is willing to work together with your conventional healthcare providers for safe, coordinated care.
- Explain all of your health conditions to the potential practitioner and ask about his/her experience in working with people with your conditions. Choose a practitioner who understands how to work with people with your specific needs, even if general well-being is your goal.
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