The importance of stress relief
Stress is a fact of life, but being stressed out is not. We don't always have control over what happens to us, says Allen Elkin, PhD, director of the Stress Management Counseling Center in New York City. Yet, that doesn't mean we have to react to a difficult situation by becoming frazzled or feeling overwhelmed or distraught. Being overly anxious is not just a mental hazard; it's a physical one too, with damaging effects to the brain
and the rest of the body
. The more stressed out we are, the more vulnerable we are to colds, flu, and a host of chronic or life-threatening illnesses—and the less open we are to the beauty and pleasure of life.
Breathing is so innate that most of us don’t even pay attention to how we do it, but there is a way to breathe for better health
and for managing stress. "Breathing from your diaphragm oxygenates your blood, which helps you relax almost instantly," says Robert Cooper, Ph.D., coauthor of The Power of 5
, a book of five-second and five-minute health tips. Shallow chest breathing, by contrast, can cause your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up, exacerbating feelings of stress. To breathe deeply, begin by putting your hand on your abdomen just below the navel. Inhale slowly through your nose and watch your hand move out as your belly expands. Hold the breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat several times. Here's how breathing can improve mindfulness
It sounds New Age-y, but at least one study, done at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, has found that it's highly effective in reducing stress. Dr. Cooper recommends imagining you're in a hot shower and a wave of relaxation is washing your stress down the drain. Gerald Epstein, MD, author of Healing Visualizations
, suggests the following routine: Close your eyes; take three long, slow breaths; and spend a few seconds picturing a relaxing scene, such as walking in a meadow, kneeling by a brook, or lying on the beach. Focus on the details—the sights, the sounds, the smells. (This quick trick shuts down stress in the moment
Make time for a mini self-massage
Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, recommends simply massaging the palm of one hand by making a circular motion with the thumb of the other. Or use a massage gadget. The SelfCare
catalog offers several, such as the S-shaped Tamm unit, that allows you to massage hard-to-reach spots on your back. Work in these self-massage tricks
for soothing full-body relaxation and help with managing stress.
Try a tonic
A study at Duke University found homeopathy effective in quelling anxiety disorders. (Here are some signs you might have an anxiety disorder
.) Look for stress formulas such as Nerve Tonic or Sedalia in your health food store, or consult a licensed homeopath. To find one near you, contact the National Center for Homeopathy
Smiling is a two-way mechanism. We do it when we're relaxed and happy, but doing it can also make us feel relaxed and happy. "Smiling transmits nerve impulses from the facial muscles to the limbic system, a key emotional center in the brain, tilting the neurochemical balance toward calm," Dr. Cooper explains. Go ahead and grin. Don't you feel like you're managing stress better already? Here are 7 other scientific reasons you should smile more
Do some math
Using a scale of one to 10, with one being the equivalent of a minor hassle and 10 being a true catastrophe, assign a number to whatever it is that's making you feel anxious. "You'll find that most problems we encounter rate somewhere in the two to five range—in other words, they're really not such a big deal," says Dr. Elkin. (Speaking of math, can you pass this elementary school math test
Stop gritting your teeth
Stress tends to settle in certain parts of our bodies, the jaw being one of them. (Did you know dental problems can be signs of disease
in other parts of the body?) When things get hectic, try this tip from Dr. Cooper: Place your index fingertips on your jaw joints, just in front of your ears; clench your teeth and inhale deeply. Hold the breath for a moment, and as you exhale say, "Ah-h-h-h," then unclench your teeth. Repeat a few times and you'll be managing stress better in no time.
Compose a mantra
Devise an affirmation—a short, clear, positive statement that focuses on your coping abilities. "Affirmations are a good way to silence the self-critical voice we all carry with us that only adds to our stress," Dr. Elkin says. The next time you feel as if your life is one disaster after another, repeat 10 times, "I feel calm. I can handle this." If you can’t come up with your own, try one of these daily mantras
Check your chi
Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) is a 5,000-year-old Chinese practice designed to promote the flow of chi, the vital life force that flows throughout the body, regulating its functions. Qigong master Ching-Tse Lee, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College in New York, recommends this calming exercise for managing stress: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel. Bend your knees to a quarter-squat position (about 45 degrees) while keeping your upper body straight. Observe your breathing for a couple of breaths. Inhale and bring your arms slowly up in front of you to shoulder height with your elbows slightly bent. Exhale, stretching your arms straight out. Inhale again, bend your elbows slightly and drop your arms down slowly until your thumbs touch the sides of your legs. Exhale one more time, then stand up straight. If you think this sounds similar to yoga, you’d be right. Try some easy yoga poses
to reap the benefits without going to a class.