Monday, November 8, 2010

Stress Reduction, Pt. 1 - RELAX

     We are experiencing an epidemic of stress.  80% of all illnesses diagnosed today are believed to be related somewhere in their development to stress.  Doctors report the most common complaints from patients include depression and fatigue – two conditions caused by stress – yet taking antidepressants and stimulants won’t “cure” stress.  They only mask some of stress’s effects.
     In this four-part series, I will address steps you can take to actually reduce stress levels (and by doing this, you reduce the amount of brain and body damaging stress chemicals - cortisol and adrenalin), while improving your serotonin levels (the “feel good” chemical).  The stress chemicals actually damage the part of your brain responsible for mood and memory – the walnut-sized hippocampus.  There are ways to repair your hippocampus.  One of the primary ways to do this is through relaxation.
Through purposeful relaxation, we are actually able to lower the amounts of cortisol and adrenalin we are producing.  Doing nothing is not necessarily the same as relaxing.  Watching TV is not purposeful relaxing.  Studies of changes in brain chemistry show that watching TV or surfing the web do not provide any beneficial relaxation effects.
     What activities ARE considered beneficial relaxation activities for our brains?
  1. Deep breathing – it activates the calming receptors located in the lower lobes of the lungs.  Post notes in places you might normally feel stressed (like your car or your desk), reminding you to take some deep breaths.
  2. Warm bath – can be as rejuvenating as a trip to a day spa.  Dim the lights, burn some candles and play some soothing music
  3. Yoga – the slow, yet strenuous pace of yoga coupled with rhythmic breathing creates a calm, peaceful feeling in the mind and body.
  4. Massage – many of us are “touch-deprived”, AND we tend to tense our muscles during stressful times.  Massage also helps to release stored toxins from our lymphatic system.  Slowing down by getting a massage is a way to nurture and clean our bodies on the inside.
  5. Tense and relax – by tensing and relaxing the muscles in our body, we are able to create more relaxation by becoming aware of what extreme tension feels like.
  6. Meditate – the beneficial effects of meditation on the brain has been studied quite a lot.  One particular study using brain scans found that a group of monks that meditates much of their waking hours have larger “relaxation centers” in their brains than the average person.   Originally developed by Buddhists, meditation has been incorporated into many cultures all over the world.
  7. Journal writing – writing in a journal for 20-minutes a day has been shown to boost immunity and improve mood.  Don’t worry about eloquence or even correct grammar, just focus on putting pen to paper (NOT typing on a computer).
  8. Be in nature – many of us walk on concrete, carpet or other synthetic surfaces for weeks at a time.  Making time to veer off of the sidewalks and onto the grass, sit by a river or picnic in a park reduces stress by exposing your senses to the energy of a more natural environment through sites, smells and sounds.
  9. Listen to calming music – certain styles of music like classical, soothing jazz and acoustical have soothing effects on our nervous system.  Skeptical about music’s affect on us?  Turn on some music around a baby and see what happens.  Many babies will instinctively begin to kick their feet and wave their arms rhythmically before they can do many other controlled movements.
  10. Express creativity – crafty activities like painting, knitting, drawing or making jewelry give you the opportunity to exercise parts of your brain that usually doesn’t get much attention during most of our daily lives.  Creativity creates a soothing and calming effect on our brains and minds, helping us to practice being more “in the moment”.

     One of my clients was saturated in stress and had "justifiable" reasons for continuing at her current pace.  She was suffering physical symptoms because of it.  I explained to her that like a whining child who's cries and tantrum will escalate when ignored, our bodies will get our attention and force us to slow down by gradually increasing its attention-getting tactics until we simply can't ignore it.  "Sooner" is much better than "later" to address these tactics, before the get too out of control.  Through implementing some of the strategies listed above and slowing down her pace, she noticed a reduction of pain and an increase of mobility in her shoulder after experiencing mysterious symptoms for more than six months.  
     Perhaps you have some aches and pains that you believe are just part of aging or the “way I am”.  They could be symptoms of stress.  Remember:  doctors and researchers believe that 80% of all illnesses diagnosed today are related to stress.  In the case of my client, stress definitely seems to be at the root of her inflamed shoulder.  Hard to believe?  Try it for yourself.

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