Dawn Balcazar, Ph.D.
"How can I relieve my stress?"
We all experience stress. Stress is our natural, evolutionary reaction to threat or challenge. Sometimes, stress translates to a positive energy, motivating us to complete tasks on time and maintain a disciplined and organized lifestyle. However, excess stress can be overwhelming and have the opposite effect. Stress can feel like agitation, frustration, or disempowerment and can lead to low self-esteem and depression. Alongside thoughts, stress can cause physical symptoms such as low energy, headaches, an upset stomach, tense or achy muscles, chest pain, insomnia, loss of sexual desire, or a significant change in appetite. Often, we try to lessen the intensity of stress through negative behaviors such as procrastination, or coping habits such as smoking, overeating, and use of alcohol or drugs. While comforting in the short-term, some of these maladaptive habits can contribute to a vicious cycle of lack of wellness and increased stress in the long run.
Stress can arise from a number of internal and external factors including, one’s personal health (physical, mental, or emotional), environment, social dynamics, family, and work. Before turning to professional treatment or prescriptions, take some time to reflect on your life and the factors that may be contributing to your feelings of stress. Aside from external factors, do you have some internal beliefs that get in the way of you being more healthy. A few worthwhile strategies for stress reduction and management are:
Mindfulness; Meditation; Exercise; and other calming activities
The most important action you can take when facing chronic stress is to find ways to calm your nervous system. Exercise, mindfulness meditation and yoga are proven to do just this. One of the pioneers in how to train our brains to stimulate “calm” was Dr. Herb Benson who wrote The Relaxation Response, which showed that calm can “be elicited by a variety of meditative techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, repetitive prayer, chi gong, tai chi, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, jogging, even knitting”. He has founded the Benson-Henry Institute at Mass. General Hospital and his work, particularly his classic book, is worth checking out. Here are two mind-body programs for stress reduction: Herb Benson's Relaxation Response Resiliency Program(3RP) and Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program (MBSR). There are also wellness centers, offering many mind-body treatments, one of which is Kripalu in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts
Meditation audio guides are also effective in reducing stress. Try listening to one of these CDs or tapes by Belleruth Naparstek or Jon Kabat-Zinn when you cannot sleep or are feeling particularly anxious. The Internal Family Systems website’s online store has a tape called Meditations for Self which is developed by founder Dr. Richard Schwartz. Also, Dan Siegel is an integrative neurobiologist who does a clear job of outlining how chronic stress changes our brains and shows us that we can “inspire to rewire” in his books on mindfulness and the brain.
Exercising releases norepinephrin into your blood stream; this neurotransmitter helps to improve mood and reduce stress. As the American Psychological Association explains, “Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body’s physiological systems – all of which are involved in the stress response – to communicate much more closely than usual.”
Research published by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute showed yoga to be an effective treatment for trauma symptoms, specifically in regard to PTSD. The study states, “Yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life…”. All exercise programs should be discussed with your physician prior to beginning.
Most wellness programs address nutrition. While there is some variety, most caution against consuming large amounts of highly processed foods and lowering one's intake of refined sugar and simple carbohydrates. Talk to a dietician and your physician to develop a program that is best for you.
Often, people benefit significantly from touch and interpersonal contact. Massage Therapy is a stress reduction intervention that many find very helpful. Studies have shown that spending time with animals and pets increases feelings of wellness. Simply petting and playing with an animal is shown to reduce blood pressure. Also, communicating with an animal, especially in an upbeat tone, often can improve mood and self esteem, and facilitate other healthy relationships.
Feelings of isolation can contribute to stress and anxiety. Improve your state of mind by connecting with other members of your community. Try joining a group with others who share a passion of yours.