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[HEALTHTRACK]

Active Options for Stopping the Stress Spin Cycle

HEALTHTRACK - JUL/AUG 97
A SUPPLEMENT TO THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE FOR THE WAITING ROOM


"Where are my keys?!"
"Oh no, I'm late!"
"Hey, I'm sure I paid this bill!"
"I was up all night. Annie has a fever."
"Turn that down!"
"Wait a minute, what do you mean I'm being audited?"

Faster, noisier, tougher. Sometimes it seems life is stuck in overdrive and there's just no slowing it down.

Stress has always been part of living, of course. But the frantic pace of modern activity leaves many people in a constant state of emergency, taking a lot of the fun out of life and also taking a toll on their health.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. Chronic stress doesn't have to rule your life. Putting stress in its place begins with taking it seriously and understanding that it has important consequences for your health and well-being. Then you can learn to recognize the signs and find ways—such as getting regular exercise—to bring more harmony to your mind and body.

What Causes Stress?

Besides all of the things you might expect to cause stress—such as financial problems, traffic jams, relationship troubles—it's important to recognize that stress comes from any type of big event in your life, whether good or bad. Having a baby, moving to a new home, or changing jobs, for example, are all very stressful, even if you're happy about the change.

Doctors say that any need to change or adjust puts your body in "fight or flight" mode—raising your blood pressure and heart rate, tightening your muscles, and constricting your blood vessels.

Excessive stress is linked to problems like high blood pressure and heart disease. It also contributes to less serious, but nonetheless distressing, conditions such as headaches, backaches, and digestive troubles. It can make body aches more painful, a touchy stomach more upset, or worsen just about any symptom, whatever the original cause.

Danger Signals

Among the more common signs of stress are headaches, indigestion, muscle pain, sleeplessness, and sweaty palms. Stress can also make you feel unusually nervous, angry, unhappy, or edgy. You may be more forgetful than usual or find it harder to concentrate. Losing your sense of humor is another signal, as is smoking, drinking, or eating more than you generally do.

If you recognize these symptoms, or if you can't remember the last time you felt relaxed, really relaxed, it may be time to make some changes to reduce the stress in your life.

Time to Get Physical

Move your body! Exercise is one of the best all-around antidotes to stress. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll begin to feel better when you make physical activity a regular part of your life. In addition to distracting you from your troubles, exercise has an overall relaxing effect. Aerobic activity, in particular, can reduce anxiety, depression, and tension. (See "Exercise: An Ally in Fighting Depression," below.) Brisk walking or bicycling for 20 to 30 minutes three to five times a week may be all that you need to help you manage stress more effectively.

Make sure, though, that your exercise pace and schedule feel natural and easy. Start out slowly and build up gradually. Forcing yourself into a rigid, demanding exercise program can make you feel more stressed out. And that's exactly what you don't need.

Change the Things You Can

Take a look at your day-to-day activities and see what you can change to make life simpler for yourself. You might schedule your commute to avoid traffic, for example, or delegate responsibility for shopping or other chores to other members of your household. Taking other parents up on their offers to carpool kids to activities, having a standardized grocery list, and getting rid of household clutter are other ways to streamline your life.

If your home or workplace is particularly stressful, try to learn constructive ways to talk about conflicts and clear the air.

Make a special effort to take good care of yourself. Be sure you get enough sleep and that your diet is balanced and consists of a variety of nutritious foods. (Ask your doctor if you need more information about healthy eating.)

The more you can identify the sources of your stress and make adjustments to eliminate or reduce them, the better you'll begin to feel.

What About the Things You Can't Change?

Some of the problems you find stressful will turn out to be beyond your control; stress just seems to be part of the package. But the support of family and friends can make it easier to handle. Give yourself permission to spend extra time with people who make you feel good. Try to steer clear of people who consistently leave you feeling upset or exhausted. And remember that leisure time, whether you spend it bowling, reading, listening to music, or playing with the dog, is not wasted. In fact, it may be some of the most valuable time of your day. Try to arrange to have some time to relax every day. Think of it as time spent recovering from the effects of "stress attacks" on your body and spirit.

Befriend Yourself

Did you know that the way you talk to yourself about an event or situation has a lot to do with how stressful you find it? Say, for instance, you make a mistake. If the thoughts that go through your head are along the lines of "I'm such an idiot. I can't do anything right," you're likely to find the situation a lot more stressful than you would if you reassured yourself.

Try to treat yourself more like a friend and less like a mortal enemy. What might you say to a friend in a similar situation? Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Give yourself a break. You deserve it.

Learn to Relax

In addition to these measures, a number of relaxation techniques can help you undo the ravages of stress: meditating, tightening and loosening each muscle group in your body one after another, closing your eyes and visualizing a soothing scene, and listening to peaceful music. Just sitting quietly and breathing slowly and evenly can also help. Close your eyes and inhale and exhale slowly through your nose. Then pause for 2 seconds after you completely exhale. Complete unforced exhalation is the key to becoming more relaxed. Experiment with different techniques to find out what works best for you. Learn to relax. You'll be amazed how much better you feel.


Exercise: An Ally in Fighting Depression

Stress and depression share a number of symptoms, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, and a sense of being overwhelmed. And while both must be taken seriously, depression must be recognized for what it is—a disease that can and should be treated.

If you suffer from depression, you aren't alone. Many people regularly experience mild-to-moderate depression, a common disorder that can manifest in many ways. Depression saps a person's energy, steals the pleasure in life, and even makes it hard to eat, sleep, talk, concentrate, or hold down a job. Low self-esteem and a crippling sense of helplessness or despair are also common. Depression can also affect the body, causing weakness, low energy, loss of appetite, irritability, and other symptoms.

It's important to realize that depression is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. Depressed people can't "pull themselves out of it" any more than people with diabetes can will themselves to make more insulin.

People who are severely depressed need medical attention. A complete plan may include antidepressant drugs and psychotherapy. For many people, exercise can be another important element in coping with depression. So talk to your doctor if you're concerned about depression. And ask about exercise.

Here are some of the ways exercise can help:

  • Rhythmic exercises, like running or rowing, increase alpha-wave activity in the brain, which produces a calming state similar to meditation.
  • Exercise can help get your mind off negative thoughts, which can be especially important when you're depressed. Fast-paced sports that require concentration, like tennis or racquetball, may be most helpful in this regard.
  • Solo exercises, like walking, running, biking, and in-line skating, offer a time to work out hard feelings and aggression or simply calm your mind and think about nothing in particular.
  • Team sports provide the pleasure of others' company and keep you from becoming isolated (being alone too much is one of the dangers of depression).
  • Exercise helps you feel alert and refreshed and promotes creativity, all of which can lift your spirits.
  • Exercise is a release. It tires you in a good way, easing muscle tension, calming you, and enhancing sleep (and it promotes the deep sleep that "recharges your batteries" more fully).
  • Exercise may also cause positive changes in the brain, releasing a substance called serotonin that contributes to feeling relaxed and satisfied.

Be sure to choose exercises that are right for you (activities you enjoy), be realistic about your goals, increase your effort gradually, and mesh your exercise program into your life.

And don't take on too much too soon. Just try to be active in some way every day, even if it's not a complete workout. The mental and physical benefits of daily exercise could give you just the lift you need.


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