How to relieve everyday stress
Your body is designed to handle, and even thrive on, brief periods of stress occasionally. But too much isn't good for body or soul. Fortunately, even when you can't change a stressful situation, you have some control over the way you deal with it. Try these techniques to restore a sense of sanity.
What is Stress?
Your body is on the alert, telling you something's wrong and you need to fix it. Stress can cause your endocrine system to pump out high levels of certain hormones that weaken immunity, damage the heart and blood vessels, and increase susceptibility to colds and other illnesses.
Stress also assaults your mind. Stress makes people irritable or easily angered; they may feel extreme anxiety and lose their ability to concentrate. They may also experience insomnia, have a chronically upset stomach, and suffer from headaches and fatigue. Luckily there are various remedies to relieve stress.
Relaxation techniques to reduce stress
Relaxing through meditation has been clinically proven to short-circuit stress. Sit in a comfortable position somewhere where you won't be disturbed. Close your eyes. Now choose a word or phrase to focus on–‘it's OK’, for example.
As you concentrate on breathing in and out, repeat the phrase each time you exhale. If you get distracted by other thoughts, gently put them out of your mind and return to your word or phrase. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. Practice at least once a day.
Research has found that certain types of music can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and even levels of stress hormones in the blood. Take a break and listen to music you find soothing.
Do a time-travel exercise. When you're feeling stressed, remember something that you felt just as tense about a year ago. How important does it seem today? Now try to project a year into the future and look back on your present dilemma. Chances are, your ‘leap forward’ in time will give you a better perspective on what you're going through.
When you feel especially tense, try a technique that is called progressive relaxation. Sit or lie down in a quiet, comfortable place. Close your eyes, curl your toes as hard as you can for 10 seconds, then relax. After your toes, tense and relax your feet, legs, tummy, fingers, arms, neck and face, so that you progressively ‘work’ the tension all the way from the tips of your toes to the top of your head and then, metaphorically, ‘let it go’.
Herbs and supplements to combat stress
Ever since ancient Greeks began enjoying camomile tea, it has been praised for its healing properties. Today, when an estimated 1,000,000 cups are consumed each day throughout the world, herbalists and naturopaths recommend camomile as a wonderful remedy for stress. Drink 1 cup, 3 times a day.
You can also add camomile, along with other calming herbs such as lavender and lemon balm, to bathwater for a nerve-soothing soak. Wrap the dried herbs in a piece of cheesecloth and hold it under the tap while you fill the bath.
Take a stress-relieving bath with aromatherapy oils and Epsom salts. Sandalwood and ylang-ylang are especially soothing to the nerves, while magnesium-rich salts reduce physical and emotional tension. Add a handful of Epsom salts to the bathwater, then swoosh 5 drops of each oil in as well. Make sure the oils are well dispersed so that they do not form ‘hot spots’ on the water's surface. Relax in the scented water for 15 minutes. To further enhance the feelings of luxurious relaxation, add candlelight, a bath pillow and a fluffy robe to wrap up in afterwards.
Get more vitamin C. In one study, people under pressure who took 1000mg of vitamin C a day had milder increases in blood pressure and brought their stress hormone levels back to normal more quickly than people who didn't take it.
Look to Panax ginseng, a herb valued for its ability to protect the body from stress. Take 100-250mg twice a day during times of stress, starting at the lower end of the dosage range and increasing your intake gradually. Experts recommend that you stop taking it for a week every 2 or 3 weeks.
Other safe and effective herbs include cramp bark, which relaxes the tense muscles often associated with stress; valerian, a sedative that can be a great help in times of extreme stress and anxiety; and the so-called ‘nervine’ herbs, which help to support an over-taxed nervous system, such as skullcap, vervain (also known as verbena) and oats.
How to prevent stress
Go out for a walk or do some other form of exercise for at least 20 minutes, 3 times a week. Exercise boosts feel good brain chemicals called endorphins, which lift your mood and make you feel less anxious.
Give–and receive–the healing power of touch. Studies consistently show that ‘touch therapies’, such as massage and reflexology, lead to a reduction in the production of cortisol and other stress hormones. Interestingly, it has also been shown that when highly successful people learn to give massage, both givers and receivers report lowered stress levels generally.
Certain nutritional supplements will give your body an extra advantage when coping with the effects of stress. Most important supplements are the B-complex vitamins, calcium and magnesium, which have mild sedative effects. Take tablets or capsules according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Limit your consumption of alcohol, caffeine and sugar; and if you smoke, quit. All of these substances can fire up your body's fight-or-flight response, contributing to physical symptoms of stress such as a racing heart, trembling, clammy hands, anxiety and irritability.
Take up a calming hobby. Gardening, knitting, doing jigsaw puzzles, reading or some other favourite pastime can help you to take a breather from the stresses of life.
Seek the help of your doctor if stress-related symptoms are affecting your quality of life. Symptoms to look for include overwhelming anxiety; inability to fall, or stay, asleep; chronic or severe headaches; back or neck pain; binge eating; and the occurrence of physical signs such as eczema, irritable bowel syndrome or migraines. Long-term stress can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other diseases.
For a little help with meditation and some gentle exercise, try our Meditation and Relaxation DVDs.