Not all stress is bad. It helps us meet deadlines, win that final point in a tennis match or run from impending danger. But when stress continues unabated it becomes hazardous to your health. With chronic stress, the body almost never completely relaxes. Increased levels of stress hormones elevate the heart rate and increase blood pressure; almost every biological system in the body is impacted as a response to prolonged stress. If there is any good news, it is that although we cannot always control the stressors in our lives, we can control our response by balancing our lives with stress-reducing strategies.
Exercise decreases stress hormones such as cortisol to a more normal level, and the body's "feel good" endorphins are released. Focusing on the body's movements and appreciating the increase in energy and uplifting attitude that accompany exercise will help to maintain feelings of calm and optimism. Most any type of exercise lasting 30 minutes — no more than 60 minutes — will help to lower stress levels. Exercise can also improve the quality of sleep, which is often disrupted by stressful feelings.
Slow, deep breathing stimulates a feeling of calmness. It encourages relaxation and has been scientifically proven to affect the heart, digestion and immune system. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from the chest, you will be inhaling more oxygen. The more oxygen one breathes, the less tension and anxiousness is felt.
Meditation slows one's breathing and heart rate. By sitting in a comfortable position for five to 20 minutes, focusing on a single thought, sound or on one's breathing, the mind is cleared. Ignore all distracting thoughts and continue with your point of focus.
Tai chi, a gentle mind-body activity, provides constant motion with flowing, relaxing movement. By focusing on the movement, one focuses on learning to live in the present, replacing distracting thoughts. For stress relief, select classes that emphasize slow, steady movements and gentle stretching.
Progressive muscle relaxation
This involves tightening, then relaxing, each muscle group of the body. One can follow a prescribed set of movement or count to oneself. An example: Lying or sitting down, tighten muscles in the right foot (don't strain) for a count of 5, then release all at once and rest for a count of 10; repeat with left foot. You would then move slowly through the body: legs, hips, buttocks and more.
Daily stress busters
Learn to say no: Continuing to say "yes" when one's plate is already full is nonproductive and definitely a stress-enhancer.
Declutter: Reorganizing or cleaning cluttered spaces can have a calming, restorative effect on daily life.
All work, no play? Allow time daily for activities that bring peace and joy, whether it's reading, playing the piano, a warm bath or just being outside.
Accent the positive: Appreciate your blessings, including personal, positive qualities. Greg Hicks, co-author of Choosing Brilliant Health, says, "When you hold on to a positive thing, your brain, by design, overrides the negative."
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Trainer Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.