Stress

Best Choices

Walking

Put one foot in front of the other. An Australian study showed that brisk walking relieves stress as well as meditation or tai chi. When you walk, you deepen your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and stretch your arms and legs. No wonder it's the nation's most popular form of exercise.

Tai Chi and Qigong

Meditate while moving. Tai chi reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Except for the fact that you meditate sitting down and do tai chi exercises standing, the two are quite similar, which is why tai chi is often described as a "moving meditation."

Bend your body, boost your mood. Qigong exercises are more subtle than tai chi and involve less motion. But Korean researchers found that qigong significantly increases levels of beta-endorphins, your body's own mood-elevating, stress-relieving compounds.

Visualization

Contemplate calmness. When stress gets the best of you, take a minute or two to practice the following visualization exercise, advises Gerald N. Epstein, M.D., director of the Academy of Integrative Medicine and Mental Imagery in New York City. Begin by closing your eyes and breathing deeply. Imagine a relaxing scene: a walk in the woods, a hug from your honey, a walk on the beach with your dog. Focus on the details-the sights, sounds, smells, the wind in your hair.

Say a little prayer. Several studies have shown that compared with those who profess no religious faith, religious people are calmer and healthier. Dr. Sobel explains that praying is a form of visualization, a meditation that can feel quite relaxing.

Music Therapy

Temper stress with tunes. Keep a radio or tape player in your kitchen or office, Dr. Sobel suggests. Listen to music in your car. Get headphones if you commute by bus or train. Listen to whatever relaxes you. If you need suggestions, try "Air for the G-String" by Bach, "Pastoral Symphony" by Beethoven, "Nocturne in G" by Chopin, "Water Music" by Handel, the soundtrack to "Chariots of Fire," or "Autumn" or "December" by jazz pianist George Winston.

Listen to a relaxation tape. These tapes combine soothing music with stress­relieving visualizations and affirmations. "I've found that combining those elements is especially effective," says Martin L. Rossman, M.D. He has produced many stress-relieving relaxation tapes. For a free catalog, write to the Academy of Guided Imagery at P. O. Box 2070, Mill Valley, CA 94942-2070.

Social Support

Call and connect. Social ties are an excellent way to relieve stress, Dr. Cooper says. "Self-absorption leads to loss of perspective and stress," he notes. "Reaching out to others-spouse, family, friends, pets, plants, anything alive-helps you gain perspective and change how you think about your problems, which helps relieve your stress ."

Pen a note to a friend. Writing provides perspective. Writing to a friend combines that with social support, another good stress reliever, Dr. Cooper says.

Love your pet. Psychologist Karen Allen, Ph.D., a research scientist in the department of medicine at the University of Buffalo, studied 100 women who lived alone. Half of the women had dogs, while the rest didn't. Repeated blood pressure tests showed that the pet owners' readings were lower. The findings of this study are consistent with other research showing that pets help reduce stress. Of course, pets aren't for everyone. But if you love animals, a pet can help keep you calm.

Volunteer somewhere. There's nothing like helping the less fortunate to show you very clearly how lucky you are-despite all of the stress in your life. "That's the selftsh reason for being altruistic;' Dr. Sobel says. "Volunteering helps you count your blessings."

Learn to say no. Although companionship is a powerful stress reliever, problematic relationships can cause tremendous stress. "It's simply not possible to please everyone all the time;" Dr. Rosch says. Trying to be perfect is a one-way ticket to serious stress. Be clear on your limits and enforce them. "No one will respect you until you respect your own limits," he adds.

Delegate something. Okay, so your spouse refuses to split the housework 50-50. But he's willing to make the bed in the morning and wash the dishes after dinner. "That's progress;" says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management and Counseling Center in New York City. "Instead of fretting over all the things he won't do, take heart from what he does."

Herbal Medicine

Calm with chamomile. According to James A. Duke, Ph.D., chamomile tea is a traditional remedy for jangled nerves. To make the tea, add 2 to 3 heaping teaspoons of chamomile flowers to 1 cup of boiled water. Steep until cool, then strain. Drink up to three cupfuls a day.

Adopt the adaptogens. Scientists use the word adaptogen to describe what traditional herbalists called tonics, according to Varro Tyler, Ph.D., Sc.D., distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy (natural pharmacy) at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Adaptogenic herbs increase your body's resistance to physical and emotional stress.

Dr. Tyler recommends adding 1/2 teaspoon of ginseng tincture to juice or tea once or twice a day or taking one or two 250-milligram capsules a day.

Don't overlook other calming herbs. For stress and anxiety, Dr. Duke also recommends catnip, passionflower, skullcap, and kava kava, a soothing plant from the South Pacillc that has recently become available in the United States. You can make a tea from any of these herbs by adding 1 teaspoon of herb to 1 cup of boiled water. Steep for 10 minutes, strain, and drink, or follow package directions.

Homeopathy

Manage with a microdose. For stress relief, homeopath Dana Ullman recommends Argentum nitricum, Gelsemium, or Lycopodium. To find out which of these medicines best suits your symptoms, consult a homeopath.

Chinese Medicine

Steel your qi. Practitioners of Chinese medicine view stress as a weakness of qi, or life energy, according to Efrem Korngold, O.M.D., L.Ac. They treat stress with many different herbs, depending on a person's particular problem and constitution. Dr. Korngold often prescribes astragalus root, ginseng, gardenia fruit, jujube seed, atractylodes, schisandra fruit, eleutherococcus, poria fungus, and amber.

Relieve stress on the spot. According to Dr. Korngold, acupuncture can strengthen qi and reharmonize the Kidney, Spleen, and Lung. If you'd like to try acupuncture, you need to consult a professional acupuncturist. If you'd prefer a do-it­yourself approach, consider acupressure. Apply steady, penetrating finger pressure for 3 minutes to each of the following points.

  • Triple Warmer 15, located on your back, 1/2 inch down from the crest of your shoulder, midway between the base of your neck and your shoulder joint
  • Bladder 10, located slightly below the base of your skull, 1/2 inch from your spine
  • Governing Vessel 24, located between your eyebrows, where the bridge of your nose meets your forehead
  • Pericardium 3, located on your inner arm, low on the inside of the crease of your elbow joint

Naturopathy

Soak away tension. Since the early nineteenth century, health spas all over the United States and Europe have served as welcome retreats for the weary, depressed, and stressed. "After a long, hard, stressful day, few things are as relaxing as a hot bath or a soak in a hot tub," says Anne Simons, M.D.

Home Remedies

Laugh at your stress. Embrace humor, Dr. Sobel urges. Keep a joke book within arm's reach. When stress strikes, open it to a random page and read. For more ways to incorporate humor into your life, contact the Humor Project, 480 Broadway, Suite 210, Saratoga, NY 12866-2288.

Set aside minor stressors. Some steessors-a ringing smoke alarm or an over­flowing toilet-demand immediate attention. But many minor stressors-bills, phone calls, a broken toaster-can be dealt with another time. "File your minor stressors away in a little mental compartment," Dr. Rosch suggests. "Then deal with them when you decide the time is right. Don't let them take control of you."

Look forward to something. When you're in the midst of a stressful situation, think of something pleasurable that lies ahead. "Looking forward to something provides calming perspective;" Dr. Elkin says.

Plan something. Of course, in order to look forward to future pleasures, you have to make plans. "Buy concert tickets;" Dr. Elkin suggests. "Schedule a weekend get­away. Make a restaurant reservation or an appointment for a massage or hot tub."

Tend a garden. For many people, connections with the natural world are calming. "My 6-acre herb garden is my major stress reliever," Dr. Duke says. But even if you don't have land for a garden, you can reap similar benefits by caring for houseplants. "Take some potted plants to work," he suggests.

Other Good Choices

Nutrition

Crack open some crackers. High-carbohydrate foods-crackers, a bagel, pasta salad-stimulate the release of brain chemicals that promote relaxation, Dr. Cooper says.

Pass the potassium. Chronic stress exhausts-and can actually shrink-the adrenal glands, which help control your mood, blood pressure, anxiety reactions, and cholesterol and blood sugar levels, according to Joseph Pizzorno Jr., N.D. A key nutrient for healthy, resilient adrenal glands is potassium. To help relieve stress, he recommends eating foods rich in this mineral, including avocados, potatoes, lima beans, salmon, chicken, bananas, tomatoes, and dried apricots.

Switch to decaf. If your fuse is short, Dr. Duke suggests replacing regular coffee with decaf. "You'll probably notice that you feel calmer and less stressed," he says. But don't quit caffeinated coffee all at once, he cautions, or you may experience several days of caffeine-withdrawal headache.

Supplements

Manage your mood with a multi. Registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Age-Proof Your Body, recommends a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement. Make sure that your multi supplies the B vitamins, vitamins C and E, calcium, magnesium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc. "But avoid so-called stress formulas," she cautions. "They often contain large amounts of randomly formulated nutrients."

Home Remedies

Use distractions. Esther M. Orioli, president of Essi Systems, a San Francisco company that organizes stress-management programs for major corporations, does crossword puzzles when she's stuck in traffic. "They focus my mind and take me emotionally away from the stress of gridlock;' she says.

Dr. Sobel sometimes makes a paper airplane and sails it across the room or wads up a piece of paper and uses a wastebasket as a basketball hoop.

"Use your imagination," Orioli says. "It's something you control, and feeling in control is the basis of stress management."

Medical Measures

For overwhelming or unrelenting stress, many doctors prescribe tranquilizers-notably the benzodiazepines, including diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax). These drugs can provide short-term relief until you get back on your feet, but all have side effects.

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