Michael Castleman

The economy is in crisis. Unemployment is rising. Homes are going into foreclosure. Businesses are failing. And everyone is feeling stressed. In a recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), “80 percent said they felt stressed because of the economy,” says  Katherine Nordal, Ph.D.,APA's executive director .

What’s more, stress-related symptoms are on the rise, with more people reporting sadness, depressed mood, fatigue, irritability, anger, insomnia, headaches, stomach distress (such as heartburn) and muscle tension now than they did in 2007.

How can emotional stress cause physical illness? Anxiety triggers the release of a stress hormone called cortisol, explains stress-management expert Andrew Weil, M.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Cortisol increases heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. It also interferes with sleep and increases sensitivity to pain, so anything that causes pain hurts more. Finally, cortisol weakens the immune system, impairing the body’s ability to fend off illness.

Ten Ways to Reduce Stress

For healthier ways to cope, consider the following advice from stress experts Nordal, Weill and Kyle Kostelecky, Ph.D., of Iowa State University:

1. Get some perspective

One traditional way is to count your blessings. You may be in a bad way, but focusing on it will only increase your stress. Instead, remind yourself of the good things in your life to balance out the bad. Another path to perspective is to volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, where you’ll encounter less fortunate people -- and be able to help them.

2. Spend time with friends and family

Social isolation increases stress. Talking with friends and family about the challenges you face makes them feel more manageable, says Richard Sherman, Ph.D., a psychologist in Tarzana, Calif.

3. Exercise every day

Research shows that regular exercise is among the most powerful tools for coping with stress. Strive for the equivalent of 30 to 60 minutes of brisk walking a day. The type of exercise doesn’t matter. Do anything you enjoy. Just do it regularly.

4. Enjoy your dog or cat

People who have pets have lower blood pressure than those who don’t. Plus, if your pet is a pooch, walking him will help you get more exercise.

5. Meditate

Many studies show that meditating once or twice a day for 20 minutes per session reduces stress and anxiety. Consider Dr. Herbert Benson's famous “relaxation response,” which uses a form of meditation to elicit a relaxed state. You can find simple, easy-to-learn instructions in Dr. Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response (HarperTorch 2002) or on the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine Web site. Or consider yoga or tai chi, which combine meditation and exercise.

6. Try guided imagery

Similar to meditation, guided imagery uses the imagination to take you on a brief emotional vacation. A simple Internet search will bring up a variety of helpful CDs to get you started.

7. Try a hot bath or sauna

Studies in Japan and Finland show that hot baths and saunas are deeply relaxing, elevate mood and minimize several symptoms of stress, including high blood pressure and insomnia.

8. Get a massage

Many studies show that massage -- especially Swedish or shiatsu -- have a relaxing effect. Massage literally kneads stress out of sore, crampy muscles. In addition, gentle touch triggers special non-pain nerves in the skin that produce feelings of well-being. As a result, massage can help alleviate many stress-related conditions, including headache, stomach distress and mild depression (aka the blues).

9. Switch to decaf

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that aggravates anxiety as well as heartburn. If you think you can’t live without that morning jolt, think again. Many people are astonished to learn that they function fine without caffeine. But don’t switch to decaf all at once or you may suffer caffeine-withdrawal headaches. Mix increasing amounts of decaf into your regular coffee. Allow about a month to transition completely to decaf.

10. Limit alcohol

Alcohol interferes with exercise and restful sleep, and is a common heartburn trigger.  

There’s a lot of gloom and doom in the news nowadays. But financial experts assure us that the economy will eventually recover. Until then, listen to the health experts. By actively managing your stress, you’ll feel better now and safeguard your long-term health for the future.

Michael Castleman has been called "one of the nation's leading health writers" (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web.


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Health - Stress Less: Ten Strategies That Work