Stressed out? Here’s what to do [Archives:2006/952/Health]

June 5 2006

Dr. Maha Al-Nakkash
Remember the last time you felt overwhelmed by stress? You may have noticed that your heart rate pounded a little faster than usual. Your palms began to sweat. Your muscles tightened. Inside, you felt that many of your bodily functions also were affected: digestion slowed, adrenaline and other hormones were pumped into the bloodstream and blood pressure rose. In fact, everyone experiences stress at various times in life.

Don't let stress make you sick. If you're a woman, you tend to carry a higher burden of stress, especially if you have many roles – spouse, mother, caregiver, friend and/or worker – and often you're unaware of your stress levels.

It's hard to stay calm and relax in our hectic lives. It seems almost impossible to find ways to de-stress; however, it's important to find those ways, as our health depends on it.

First, you must learn to recognize stress by listening to your body so that you know when stress is affecting your health. Stress can take on many different forms and can contribute to symptoms of illness. Common symptoms include: headache, sleep disorders, difficulty concentrating, short-temperedness, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, low morale, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, frequent frustration, change in appetite, sleeplessness and oversleeping.

Simple ways to de-stress and relax

For many reasons, certain individuals may be at risk of vitamin, mineral and/or amino acid deficiencies. These include those in stressful situations: the elderly, children, adolescents, post-menopausal women, those suffering illness and/or in the recovery process, those following restricted diets, smokers and frequent alcoholic beverage drinkers, vegetarians, those who don't get enough sunshine and those who don't have time to eat a balanced diet.

Create an atmosphere that induces calmness throughout your home:

– Tranquil sounds. Your favorite music, sound machines and waterfalls can help you relax and unwind. Sounds have the ability to alter our perceptions and instantly change our mood.

– Living plants. Live plants create a peaceful atmosphere. They improve the ambiance and air quality of indoor environments and induce positive energy around them.

– Soft lighting. Soft and adjustable lighting can create a soothing atmosphere. Look for light bulbs that are bright, but not harsh. Being able to adjust the brightness of your lighting will give you more control of your space's mood.

– Pleasant smells A fresh and pleasant odor can transport you to a peaceful place and time. Open a window to get an exchange of air or use air purifiers or deodorizers to create the scent you find most pleasing.

– Comfortable textures. Use pillows, throws and soft materials to create a comfort zone. Our sense of touch has a powerful impact upon our feelings.

Make time for yourself. It's important to care for yourself. Think of this as an order from your doctor, so you don't feel guilty! No matter how busy you are, try setting aside at least 15 minutes in your schedule each day to do something for yourself, like taking a bubble bath or going for a walk.

Sleep. Sleeping is a great way to help both body and mind. Your stress could get worse if you don't get enough sleep. Also, you can't fight off sickness as well when you sleep poorly. When you sleep enough, you can tackle problems better and lower the risk of illness. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

Eat right. Focus on fruits, vegetables and proteins. Eat whole grains, such as wheat breads and wheat crackers, and limit caffeine. Don't deal with stress in unhealthy ways. This includes drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking or overeating.

Take nutritional supplements. Eating what we think is a “perfect” diet sometimes can't give us enough key nutrients. Taking supplements is necessary to ensure adequate amounts in your system and cover any deficiencies.

Get moving. Believe it or not, physical activity not only helps relieve tense muscles, but works off stress and helps mood too. The body produces certain chemicals called endorphins before and after working out, which relieve stress and improve mood.

Talk to friends. Talk to friends to help work through stress. Friends are good listeners. Finding someone who'll let you talk freely about your problems and feelings without judging you does a world of good. It also helps to hear a different point of view. Friends will remind you that you are not alone.

Write down your thoughts. Have you ever typed an email to a friend about your lousy day and felt better afterward? Why not grab a pen and paper and write down what's going on in your life? Keeping a journal can be a great way to get things off your chest and work through issues. Later, you can go back and read through your journal and see how you've made progress.

Relax. It's important to unwind in your own way. Some ways include deep breathing, yoga, meditation and massage therapy. If you can't do these things, take a few minutes to just sit or listen to soothing music.

Yoga exercises hold postures that work the body's muscles and breathing mechanism. Meditation often is integrated into the series of poses or exercises as a way to further quiet the mind and the body.

Massage therapy is controlled touching of the body that reduces stress, relaxes muscles and makes a person feel good. It also improves circulation, relieves congestion, strengthens muscle tissue and realigns weak muscle fibers.

The following is a simple breathing exercise you can do at home, in the office or practically anywhere. Deep breathing is a good way to relax. Try it a couple of times every day. Here's how to do it:

Lie down or sit in a chair, resting your hands on your stomach. Inhale through your nose, slowly counting to four. Feel your stomach rise. Hold it for a second and then slowly exhale through your mouth while counting to four. To control how fast you exhale, purse your lips like you're going to whistle and your stomach slowly will fall. Repeat five to 10 times.