For the 20th year in a row, April has been designated as National Stress Awareness Month. For stress experts, health care professionals and public health advocates, it's a time to join forces and increase awareness about the health dangers of stress and what can be done to successfully cope with it, while also examining the many misconceptions about something that has been called a modern epidemic.
For everyone else, National Stress Awareness Month and the related National Stress Awareness Day – which, interestingly enough takes place on April 16th, the day after tax returns are due – is a good time to give some thought to the role that stress plays in our lives and commit to addressing this very real health concern more effectively.
One approach offered by stress specialist and educator, Morton C. Orman, MD, is to stop trying to deal with this thing we call "stress" and start identifying the specific problem or problems behind it. Once you've looked clearly and realistically at the main causes of each specific problem, his recommendation is to deal with the causes until the "stressor" – which he considers to be the problem itself – gets better or gets eliminated.
Good advice, but sometimes we can't change some of the external causes of stress in our lives and other times we're not even sure of the source of the stress. That's why it's important to put together a number of strategies that can individually or collectively help reduce the negative physiological, psychological and emotional effects of stress. The good news here is that while stress takes a heavy financial toll based on its impact on things like healthcare costs, increased substance abuse and poor job performance, some of the ways we can address the problem of stress can be obtained free or at very low cost.
Music: Almost everyone has some personal experience with the ability of music to relax the body and calm the mind. And scientific research backs it up, because just passively listening to music that pleases you has been shown to reduce blood pressure as well as the hormone levels associated with stress.
Breathing: Now there's something we can all do and it's definitely free. There are a number of breathing exercises you can try, but one of the easiest and most straightforward is simply to breathe deeply, hold it in for a few seconds and then exhale while focusing closely on the act itself. Deep breathing has numerous benefits for the body, including oxygenating the blood, which in turn, helps relax muscles and slow down the mind. You can do breathing exercises anytime, anywhere, and they can help you de-stress very quickly.
Yoga: Yoga has been around for thousands of years and it's still helping growing numbers of people improve their health and wellbeing. Yoga combines a number of stress management techniques including breathing, meditation and movement and can be done individually or in a group setting. Riverside Wellness and Fitness Centers offer a number of types of yoga as part of their group exercise classes.
Meditation: While there are a fairly wide range of mediation techniques, most build on deep breathing and take it a step further to actually change brain function to a state that can be similar to sleep but has added benefits that include the release of certain hormones that promote health.
Exercise: An ongoing exercise program can help control weight, increase energy and improve your strength and endurance. A more active life – everything from walking and gardening to recreational sports and more formalized exercise activities – can also help manage stress by helping to take your mind off stressful situations and giving you a healthy outlet for frustration. Be sure to check the variety of exercise programs provided throughout the Riverside Health System.
As you consider strategies for stress reduction, you might also want to look at Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Riverside is the first healthcare system in the region to offer a MBSR course modeled on the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
So take a little time to incorporate stress reduction into your daily routine. We can't always change the concerns we have about health and safety, work, finances, relationships and other stressors in this fast-paced world, but we do have some control, often more than we realize, over how we react to them and manage them.
Click here to go to the home page of the April 2012 Get Healthy e-newsletter.