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If misery loves company, then stress sufferers can take some comfort in the fact that they have plenty of partners: Seventy-five percent of Americans feel they have what they'd describe as "great stress" at least one day a week. Probably an equal number of us have tried some kind of de-stressing technique and have drawers full of lavender candles and relaxation CDs we were too busy to ever actually use to prove it. But what about all the other stress cures we keep hearing about? Should we try that yoga class? Splurge on a massage? Sit in a darkened room and meditate?
The answer is: Yes, yes...and yes. Many of these once-outside-the-mainstream practices are now proven, accepted stress therapies used in hospitals all over the country. Thanks to MRIs, EKGs, and brain mapping, researchers have been able to determine what effects these methods have on our minds and bodies. "We've seen heart rates slow, brain waves change, and hormone levels fluctuate," says Kathleen Hall, PhD, founder of the Stress Institute, based in Clarkesville, Georgia, and author of A Life in Balance. "These are truly proven medicine."
Most encouraging of all is the news that these techniques do not demand the kind of time commitment a stressed-out person can ill afford. "We used to believe that it would take six months or at least six hours to lower your stress level," says Dr. Hall. "But now we know that you can lower your heart rate, slow your breathing, and drop your stress hormone levels in as little as 30 seconds; with practice, you can de-stress in just six seconds. Your every thought, word, and action causes a related chemical reaction, so if you train your mind to relax, your body learns to respond immediately."
Nor do you have to stress out about which relaxation methods -- whether yoga, deep breathing, meditation, or others -- you choose. Research shows that what works best depends on the individual. "It's not how you get to the point of relaxation, but that you get there," says Mehmet Oz, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Institute and vice chair of surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City, and director of its complementary medicine program. "Find a method that works for you."
Once you discover a de-stressing strategy that you like, practice it regularly. "With time and experience, these methods work like dimmer switches that you can use to dial down your anxiety levels whenever you feel yourself tensing up," says Pamela Peeke, MD, assistant professor at the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore, and author of Body for Life for Women. "Over time, you'll get really good at it." You can also boost your everyday level of happiness hormones, improve your immune system, help you sleep better, and decrease your risk of heart disease. Read on for the top tested techniques to try. One of them may help you discover a faster way to serenity and its benefits.
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."
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.
No time to de-stress? Think again! You can lower your stress level all but instantly with these on-the-spot mood boosters.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2006.