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You're struggling to meet a work deadline when you hear that your mother is in the hospital after breaking her ankle, your son needs you to come to school to sign a permission slip or he can't go on today's field trip, your husband is away on business, you haven't exercised in a month, and you're feeling stretched to the limit. It's Stress with a capital S, and what's worse, you're worried that the extra pressure is setting you up to get sick.
This story doesn't have to end that way. Recent research has led to an understanding of stress's biochemistry, why it makes you susceptible to illness and how you can stay healthy. It turns out there is a very short window of opportunity that can begin as stress peaks. Seize it by doing an anti-stress exercise and you may avoid getting sick.
It all has to do with the physical changes stress causes. When you're stressed your body releases into your bloodstream some pretty potent chemicals: cortisol, which depresses the immune system, and adrenaline, which can rev it up. "When both of these chemicals are being produced, the immune system is in balance," says Esther M. Sternberg, MD, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institutes of Health and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. As a result, you tend not to get sick while in the thick of a crisis. "But," Dr. Sternberg explains, "when the stress lessens, adrenaline level drops first -- then cortisol. During this time, when the immune system is suppressed by cortisol and not stimulated by adrenaline, you're most susceptible to infection." This likely explains why as crisis passes and you relax -- boom! -- you get sick. This discovery points the way to a new health defense. Pace yourself and bust stress as it peaks, and you may avoid illness.
A number of exercises have been scientifically proven to fight stress and boost the immune system. Moderate exercise is one of the best, but taking an hourlong walk at the height of your crisis may be unrealistic. Here's welcome news: You don't have to exercise in big blocks of time. "If you can de-stress several times a day for even a few minutes at a time," says Dr. Sternberg, "you will have a better chance of keeping your levels of stress hormones in balance and lessen your chances of getting sick." And though physical activity is a great choice, there are effective exercises you can do without even getting out of your chair. These simple, do-anywhere de-stressors have all been shown not only to lower stress, but to reduce risks of related illness.
Recently doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who nap at least 30 minutes a day are significantly less likely to die from heart attacks than those who don't. Why the heart-healthy effect? "It's possible that sleep helps lower heart attack risk by reducing stress," says lead study author Dimitrios Trichopoulos, MD, professor of epidemiology and cancer prevention there.
That stress-reducing siesta may also keep you from getting sick. A sleepless night -- the kind you're more likely to have when you're stressed -- results in a high level of cortisol, which weakens the immune system. Taking even a 20- to 30-minute nap in the afternoon can help bring those cortisol levels back into normal ranges. How to make it happen? Some companies now offer napping rooms, and if you work at home or if you're your own boss, it's relatively easy to take a quick snooze.
For those of us who work in a traditional office, however, sneaking an on-the-job siesta may require some serious creativity. It is doable, insists William Anthony, PhD, director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University and coauthor of The Art of Napping at Work. "In our surveys, women shared several strategies. Some say they go out and nap in their car during their lunch break." Others, who worked in doorless cubicles, learned to take catnaps leaning back in their chairs, holding a bottle of eyedrops. "If anyone comes in, you can say you were just leaning back to put drops in your eyes," explains Dr. Anthony.
If a nap is a total non-option, see if you can find ways to get more nighttime shut-eye. Sleep is a crucial part of defending yourself against stress-induced illness.
Next to sleep, exercise may be the single best thing you can do to relieve stress. "Exercise improves blood flow, helps your body release endorphins, and buffers the stress response," says Dr. Sternberg. The activity also shifts your focus away from what's stressing you.
For years doctors said that to reap health benefits from exercise you needed to raise your heart rate for at least 30 minutes at a stretch. Now studies find that exercising just 10 minutes or less a few times a day also works. Researchers in Northern Ireland studied two groups of men and women who took either one 30-minute walk or three 10-minute walks daily. Both groups had similar improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat, and mood, but the group who exercised in 10-minute bouts found it easier to stick with it. In a study at Northern Arizona University, women who rode stationary bicycles noted better mood and energy levels after 10 minutes. The elevated levels were sustained for as long as they exercised but never rose significantly higher than they were at the 10-minute point.
A few brisk walks -- around the block at lunchtime or down the corridor at coffee break -- may be the easiest way to fit stress-relieving exercise into your day. "If you can whistle while you walk, you're not walking fast enough. If you can't hold a conversation while walking, you need to slow down," says Bruce S. Rabin, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program. In addition to relieving stress, exercise can help you build up a tolerance to it, Dr. Rabin says. That's because the physical stress of exercise activates the same area of the brain as psychological stress does. If you frequently activate those circuits with the health-enhancing stress of exercise, your brain won't be capable of reacting as intensely to health-sapping psychological stress.
We've all said this to someone who is worked up, but it turns out the cliche is not empty advice. Research has shown it works. "Breathing deeply increases the amount of oxygen in your blood," says Dr. Rabin. "The increased oxygen is detected by your brain, which shuts down the production of the stress chemical norepinephrine. That's why you feel calmer instantly. Blood pressure and heart rate go down. You think more clearly."
Inhale so your abdomen expands fully while your shoulders stay still. When you do so, says Dr. Rabin, "you pull in six to eight times the amount of air. As with exercise, the increased oxygen level in your blood tells your brain to decrease production of norepinephrine. Two or three deep breaths should be enough." Stop if you begin to feel dizzy and wait 15 minutes before deep-breathing again.
Exercises that combine mental imagery, breathing, gentle motion, and stretching -- such as yoga and tai chi -- are particularly effective at reducing stress and stress-related illnesses. In a recent study of people age 59 and older, researchers at UCLA found that practicing tai chi boosted immunity against the virus that causes shingles as much as receiving the vaccine did.
"Tai chi has also been found to lower blood pressure and reduce blood levels of cortisol and adrenaline," says Peter M. Wayne, PhD, director of the Tai Chi Research Programs at Harvard Medical School. If you can't get to a class, you may benefit by taking 10 or 15 minutes a day for simple tai chi moves you can do anywhere -- even at your desk.
Holding hands with someone you love can reduce stress, according to researchers at the University of Virginia. They looked at the brain waves of happily married couples who had been told to expect a mild electrical shock. When women were holding hands with their husbands, their brain activity was calmer than when they weren't. The message? Being with someone you love may be the best stress reducer of all.
Tempted to blow up at someone who's done you wrong? Well, don't, but spend 15 minutes writing down your feelings. Using pen and paper is more satisfying than typing, experts find. Then shred the paper and toss it. "The effects of this practice are amazing," says Dr. Rabin. "Studies show that people who do this regularly sleep better and have the blues less often."2. Soak Up the Sun
Catching a few rays daily can help you have a sunnier outlook on life. "The blue wavelength in broad-spectrum light elevates serotonin levels, helps alleviate depression, and makes you feel better," says Dr. Rabin. You can achieve this by exercising outdoors or even by putting broad-spectrum lightbulbs in the rooms where you spend the most time.3. Talk to Yourself
Create an upbeat chant that you can repeat easily: "All will be well." "I am fine." "Things are good." "God loves me." Whatever works for you is best. At first, say the chant quietly or out loud when you're happy. "You are learning to associate the chant with feeling good," says Dr. Rabin. "Then when you're upset, if you think or say the chant, the brain associates it with feeling good and you calm down rapidly. Studies have shown repeatedly that this works."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2008.