Shortcuts to Less Stress

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Try It: Deep Breathing

Why? It doesn't get more basic than this. You're always breathing, so you might as well learn to do it in a way that maximizes the health benefits. "Just about every stress-relieving discipline involves deep breathing," says Dr. Oz. "It's an important foundation because it stimulates the brain stem and triggers the release of mood-modulating brain chemicals like endorphins and neuropeptides. Just a few seconds of deep breathing can alter your brain's chemical balance enough to create a great sense of peace." Also, it's very, very easy.

De-stressing shortcut: Simply being aware of your breathing patterns is a good way to get started. "When we're tense -- which for many of us is most of the time -- we tend to take shallow, gulping breaths that increase our physical arousal and feelings of stress even more, and this process becomes a kind of vicious circle," says Holly McCarter, a yoga instructor and wellness counselor at the health resort and spa Miraval, in Catalina, Arizona. "When you're aware of this happening, you can stop and adjust your breathing so you don't trigger your body's fight-or-flight stress response." Instead, sit still for a moment and inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale long (and loudly, if it feels good) through your mouth. Concentrate on using your diaphragm correctly: Push your abdomen out as you inhale, pull it inward and toward your spine as you exhale and push the air out. Notice your rib cage expanding and contracting with each deep breath. It feels awkward at first, but it's easy to practice -- while you're in the car, waiting for a cashier, on hold -- and to perfect.

In-depth serenity: There are many other variations on basic breathing exercises you can learn on your own. One classic stress reliever to try when tension starts to mount is the "4-7-8" exercise advocated by Andrew Weil, MD, the well-known wellness guru. "Sit with your back straight," instructs Dr. Weil. "Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there throughout the exercise. Now exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Then exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath. Inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times." You'll be amazed at how much calmer you feel. You can find more deep-breathing exercises on Web sites such as www.drweil.com and www.drkathleenhall.com.

Try It: Meditation

Why? Meditation is one of the easiest methods to squeeze into your busy schedule, as the reported 10 million Americans who meditate daily have discovered. "Meditation has a long history as a calming practice," says Andrew Newberg, MD, associate professor of radiology and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. "But we now know that when you meditate, different parts of the brain actually turn on and off and your autonomic nervous system slows down, which short-circuits your stress response."

Herbert Benson, MD, the pioneering associate professor of medicine at Harvard who began measuring the physiological benefits of meditation in the '70s, showed -- among other things -- that people who regularly engaged in the practice lowered their heart rates and blood pressure. More recently Dr. Newberg's research suggests that meditation also changes blood flow to the brain and decreases anxiety while it improves other mental functions.

De-stressing shortcut: The "mini," as stress experts call it, is meditation in its easiest, most doable form. "The mini is a positive three- to five-word phrase that you repeat to yourself in a traffic jam, before a big meeting, sitting in a plane on a runway, or any time you need to feel focused and calm," says Dr. Hall. "The repetition clears your mind of negative thoughts and mental clutter and helps you achieve a state of serenity." Backing up these claims, a study last year coauthored by Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCLA, found that subjects who repeated any positive affirmation lowered their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Your mantra should be anything you believe will help you cope: "I am calm," "I am capable," "I am strong." "Your mind trusts what you tell it, so your words become a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Dr. Hall.

In-depth serenity: Spend 20 minutes a day engaging in guided imagery or walking meditations. "In guided imagery you simply sit quietly and picture some place, thing, or activity -- your favorite vacation spot, sunbathing in your backyard -- that makes you feel calm," explains Dr. Peeke. "Take yourself there mentally. Conjure up the scents, the sounds, the sensations. Professional athletes use this technique to remain calm and focus on winning. You can use it to relax." For an added antistress boost, try a similar technique when you're walking or running: "Exercise increases your endorphins, so when you're in motion, you're already modulating your mood," says Dr. Peeke. "Get absorbed in the physical sensations and your surroundings. Focus on the pumping of your legs, on breathing in and out. You'll get into a zone and all of your tension will disappear because your serotonin is spiking, your cortisol is plummeting -- and suddenly you'll realize that you no longer feel like a basket case."

Continued on page 3:  Try It: Yoga

 

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