Shortcuts to Less Stress
Try It: Yoga
Why? Using yoga poses and exercises to promote tranquility may be an ancient mind-body discipline, but there are literally dozens of high-tech and modern studies showing that it reduces stress levels, boosts mood, and improves overall health. "Your level of the stress hormone cortisol actually drops even while you're doing basic beginner yoga," says Dr. Peeke. "And if you practice yoga on a consistent basis, your cortisol stays low." Yoga is now used as a common alternative therapy at cancer centers and major hospitals, including NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. More evidence of its potent effects: A recently published study at the University of Texas at Houston found that breast cancer patients who did yoga every day had fewer side effects from radiation and a higher quality of life. "These patients, who practiced yoga twice a week, slept better, reported less stress, and were generally happier and less anxious," explains study director Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, director of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's Integrative Medicine Program.
De-stressing shortcut: Hatha yoga, a commonly practiced and less-acrobatic method, is a good starting point. A simple, classic, stress-relieving pose is called "legs up the wall." "Sit on the floor with your right shoulder against the wall," says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., author of A Year of Living Your Yoga. "Roll onto your back. Pivot around until your body is at a right angle to the wall, while you swing your legs around and up so that your feet are next to each other on the wall, keeping your lower back on the floor. If this position does not feel comfortable, try moving a little farther away from the wall. Place a small pillow or blanket under your head and neck for comfort. Cover your eyes with a soft cloth and breathe normally. Rest from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Reversing your blood flow slows your heart rate and is extremely relaxing. (But skip this pose if you are pregnant, menstruating, or have acid reflux.)" When you stand up, you'll feel calm and refreshed. You can learn other poses or check your form with instructional DVDs such as Yoga Journal's Step by Step: The Total Guide to Managing Stress ($19.95, www.yogajournal.com) or ZYoga: The Yoga Sleep Ritual, by Anne Dyer ($24.95, www.sleepgarden.com).
In-depth serenity: Take a beginner class in gentle yoga, which consists of the easiest versions of traditional poses, to get the advantage of an instructor's guidance. "This method isn't athletic or strenuous," says Dr. Lasater. "Find an instructor with several years of experience who puts you at ease and a class that makes you feel welcome.Try It: Massage
Why? "It's straight-up relaxation," says Dr. Oz: You lie there while a pair of hands removes your stress. Massage's benefits are so universally recognized that a 2003 survey of more than 1,000 hospitals found that 70 percent used massage therapy for stress and pain management. "We know for sure that massage -- even self-massage -- instantly slows down your system," says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Her 2006 study showed that massage reduces lower back pain as well as the corresponding sleep problems and depression. "EEGs, EKGs, and saliva tests showed that brain waves change, heart rates decrease, and cortisol levels drop, both during and after the treatments," she says. And you don't need an hourlong, full-body rub to benefit: A 2003 British hospital study found that a simple foot massage can significantly decrease blood pressure and breathing rate.
De-stressing shortcut: "I advise a simple self-massage every morning in the shower," says Dr. Field. "Get a natural body brush and scrub your body -- limb by limb -- in long, sweeping motions." If your partner's too busy to provide you with a quick foot massage or backrub, you can also use a tennis ball to roll out muscle tension wherever you hold it: "Place it between your back and a wall and just move up and down, back and forth, against the ball, for a back rub," says Dr. Field. "Put it underneath your foot while you're sitting on the couch and roll it back and forth. Roll it over your arms, legs, anywhere you feel tension." Everyone has a personal preference about where they enjoy being massaged the most. Just go with whatever your body tells you: If the massage feels good, you're doing it right.
In-depth serenity: Book a professional massage with a licensed massage therapist. Don't worry about what kind of massage he or she practices -- any enjoyable massage will reduce stress. "If you're new to this, ask questions before you book to see what method sounds appealing to you," says John Katomski, a licensed massage therapist at the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, in New York City. Swedish is the most widely used method and involves kneading tension out of each muscle group in your body. If you don't feel comfortable with a full body rub, consider a reflexology massage, which is performed on the soles of your feet, or a Thai massage, for which you remain fully clothed. "You should always feel comfortable explaining what pressure feels good, which areas you want to treat or avoid, even which oils you like," says Dr. Field.