Taking It Easy: By making stress relief a part of our daily routine, we can stay calm when the going gets tough

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Taking It Easy: By making stress relief a part of our daily routine, we can stay calm when the going gets tough.

Back in 1983 a Time magazine cover story named it the "epidemic" of the '80s. Since then an entire industry has materialized around the problem of stress -- relieving it, coping with it, counteracting it, managing it. "Stressful" has become such a staple in our vocabulary that it now describes everything from surviving an earthquake to waiting in line at the bank. But for those of us who aren't stockbrokers or emergency room nurses, can the threat of stress truly imperil our well-being? if we've heeded all the warnings, made the commitment to a daily yoga practice, follow a healthy diet, and spend quality time with family and friends, haven't we earned immunity from the stress plague?

Unfortunately, the answer is only maybe, according to the latest stress research. Whether we spend our days slugging it out on the trading room floor or leading yoga classes, stress has more to do with our sense of being in control than in the particular kinds of lives we lead. Fifteen years of research has shown that, more than anything, it's the way in which we react to stress -- not the actual stress itself -- that will ultimately determine its effect on our mental and physical well-being.

Dr. Hans Selye, the Canadian researcher affectionately known as "the grandfather of stress," defined the term in the 1950s as the nonspecific response of the organism to any pressure or demand." In other words, stress is our physical, emotional, or behavioral response to something that happens in our lives. Stress can take the positive form of eu-stress -- the "good" stress that comes with landing a great new job, for instance -- or distress, which happens when we get the pink slip. A stressor, says Selye, is that culprit event or stimulus that causes us to react. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, "a stressor can be an internal as well as an external occurrence or event. [Even] a thought or feeling can cause stress and therefore be a stressor." In other words, worrying about something, like getting a parking ticket, can be just as stressful as actually seeing it on the windshield.

This mind-body connection lies at the heart of what stress is all about, says Dr. Elson Haas, director of the Marin Clinic of Preventive Medicine and Health Education in San Rafael, California: "Stress is not the situations or incidents themselves; rather, real stress comes from the way we react to them. For stress to arise and negatively influence our health, we must experience something as a danger. When we do, anxiety is generated, which we often experience as fear or a feeling of threat to our survival. Learning to adapt our attitude and find suitable outlets for our stress is a very important long-range plan."

The Body's Stress Response

Back in Psych 101, we all learned about the "fight or flight" response to stress, as illustrated in the textbook by the hapless cave-dweller faced with a saber-toothed tiger. Thousands of years later, our automatic physiological response to a stressor -- should I impale the beast with my sharpened stone or run for my life? -- has remained the same, although the stressors have changed. When we come up against a challenge that seems greater than our available resources, our mind automatically sounds the alarm to the body out of instinctual fear. A person driving along a highway at night, for instance, immediately feels a sense of panic when a tire suddenly blows out, and these brain signals quickly translate into physiological reaction, The driver's pituitary gland releases adrenaline and other stress hormones to help sharpen her perceptions, and her pupils dilate to allow more light in. Her breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure increase to maximize blood flow to her limbs, and her digestion grinds to a halts her liver releases sugars, cholesterol, and fatty acids into the bloodstream for energy. in this state of hyperarousal, she is ready to react to the situation -- to pull the car over and use the cell phone she has in her purse, or try to change the tire herself while keeping an eye out for her safety. By mobilizing all its resources, the body is able to perform under pressure, whether dealing with hazardous road conditions, or delivering a speech in front of a large audience.

This chain reaction, called the General Adaptation Syndrome by Selye, has been the ticket to our survival thus far on Earth. However, it can also work to our disadvantage. Problems arise, say stress experts like Miranda Castro of Bastyr University, "when this fight-or-flight response becomes habitual -- when everyday events (getting stuck in traffic, waiting in a supermarket checkout line) evoke it regularly, because the body is constantly flooded with adrenaline." Dr. Robert Eliot, former director of preventive and rehabilitative cardiology at St. Lukes Hospital in Phoenix, goes as far as to say that fight-or-flight is a physiologically "neurotic" response for 20th-century living: "People are reacting to today's problems with yesterday's primitive responses. When stress was primarily physical, people really did have to fight or flee. Sometimes we still need to do that, but for the most part, modern stress is of a different nature. Rather than battle tigers, you must be subtly attuned to office politics. As a result, you end up pumping high-energy chemicals (those needed for fighting or fleeing) for low-energy needs. The price is high; over the long haul you turn the energy inward and burn out."

It's easy to recognize the impact stress has on our lives when it's the result of a death in the family, a contentious divorce, or other major life event. Harder to acknowledge, however, is that stress will also wear us down gradually, if we tend to react to minor challenges -- losing a contact lens or missing the morning train -- with the same sense of anguish that overcomes us in times of great tragedy. According to ayurvedic practitioner Pratima Raichur, this type of chronic stress reaction takes a toll on our health. "Continued release of catecholamines [hormones] into the bloodstream, she explains, "increases production of oxidant molecules and leads to cellular breakdown -- which is the first step in the aging process."

Elson Haas has found that "stress can generate many symptoms and diseases, mediated by changes in immune function, hormonal response, and biochemical reactions, which then influence body functions in our digestive tract and our cardiovascular, neurological, or musculoskeletal systems. Headache, backache, and infection, even heart disease or cancer in the long term may result." Haas has identified a number of physiological stress-related symptoms, from indigestion to insomnia to PMS. Classic mental and emotional stress responses include poor concentration, depression, stuttering, and panic attacks. It's not hard, given the laundry list of stress-derived health problems, to see why researchers at the American Institute of Stress have implicated stress as the cause of nearly 90 percent of doctor's visits in the U.S., and the culprit factor in two-thirds of America's heart attacks.

Finding Peace of Mind

Considering the countless incidents of lost contact lenses and missed trains that people experience every day -- and the fact that the stress response can precipitate so many ills -- it's a wonder we still have any healthy souls among us. But clearly we do, and Dr. Paul Rosch of the American Institute of Stress says the difference between the health of the person who panics at the slightest mishap and the one who remains calm in the face of danger lies in the reaction. "Stress is a highly individualized phenomenon. Think of a roller coaster, where there are invariably the white-knuckled people in the back seat praying for the ride to end, while the thrill-seekers are up in front having a great time. Stress comes down to the feeling that you're not in control. No one person on the roller coaster really has any more control than anyone else -- whether you're in the front, the back, or in between, it's how you perceive your level of control that will determine your level of stress."

Some people, he adds, thrive on a hectic schedule that requires them to constantly work under pressure; others would feel out of control in this kind of lifestyle. "There's a lot of confusion and hype about stress, which makes things worse. Stress can also be good. The stress of winning a race is one example. Certainly the excitement and anticipation of a first passionate kiss is not the same as the stress of a dentist drilling into your molars." While we often think of it in negative terms, stress can be a great motivator, inspiring us to create, make plans, produce, grow -- and ultimately reach our most significant personal achievements. Good or bad, stress manifests itself differently in each new cycle of life. Acknowledging the constantly changing nature of life -- and the particular challenges of our times -- can be helpful in learning to adapt. "For children and adolescents, the lack of parental control, peer pressure, the influence of television and TV violence, and different types of role models can all prove stressful. The elderly have to cope with increasing social isolation, chronic disease, less control over their lives. In between are the many subgroups of adults -- men, women, single parents, adult children taking care of elderly parents, those out of work, and so on. And the accelerated pace of daily life has whittled away free time for everyone concerned."

The good news is that we're more proactive about stress today than ever before, not waiting for the onset of a heart attack to change our worrying ways. Stress antidotes range from the simple and timeless -- like yoga or a nice hot bath -- to new, high-tech procedures like low-energy emission therapy, which relieves insomnia with a device emitting an electromagnetic field. "The natural state of any organism is relaxation," says Nancy Ford-Kohne, a yoga-for-stress teacher at Alexandria Hospital in Virginia. "If you've been stressed out at work for eight hours, you'll need that much time to recoup. But as individuals, we each have our own ways of doing that. Try anything, do anything. Look at your diet. Use herbs, use music. Experiment with color and scent. Use whatever occurs to you that feels soothing."

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Just as stress triggers differ from one individual to the next, so do the cures. For some people, a cup of hot chamomile tea followed by an afternoon nap might do the trick. Others might require a three-week vacation and some major retail therapy. Take a few minutes to evaluate your level of stress, using the self-test on page 43. Whether you then explore homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, aromatherapy, or other rejuvenative practices to release tension, you have taken the first step in ensuring balance in mind-body health. You'll soon find that life's proverbial spilled milk loses its tragic edge as you begin to make stress relief part of your daily routine.

The Holmes Stress Test

Research by Dr. Thomas Holmes at the University of Washington found that people are more likely to develop an illness or clinical symptoms after they've gone through a period of many life changes -- whether joyful ones or challenging. The following test allows you to quantify how much change you have recently experienced, and then find out the likelihood that this experience will affect your health.

Check all the events that have happened to you over the last year, indicating the number of times -- if any -- in the left column.

Scoring: Holmes and associates found that of those with a score of 300 or more, about 80 percent will get sick in the near future. Fifty percent of those with a score of 200-299 will get sick, and 30 percent whose score is 150-199 will get sick. The higher your score, the more you should take care to stay well and reduce stress. No. of Mean times x value = Score -----

23 ----- A lot more or a lot less trouble with your boss. -----
16 ----- A major change in sleeping habits (more, less,

different bedtime). -----

15 ----- A major change in eating habits (more, less, different

meal times). -----

24 ----- A revision of personal habits (dress, manners,

associations). -----

19 ----- A major change in your usual type or amount of

recreation. -----

18 ----- A major change in your social activities (clubs,

movies, visiting). -----

19 ----- A major change in religious or spiritual activities. -----
15 ----- A major change in number of family gatherings. -----
38 ----- A major change in your financial state (for the better

or worse). -----

29 ----- Trouble with in-laws. -----
35 ----- A major change in number of arguments with your spouse

or partner (a lot more or less than usual). -----

39 ----- Sexual difficulties. -----
53 ----- Major personal injury or illness. -----
63 ----- Death of a close family member (other than spouse or

partner). ----- 100 ----- Death of a spouse or partner. -----

37 ----- Death of a close friend. -----
39 ----- Gaining a family member (birth, adoption, elder moving

in). -----

44 ----- Major change in health or behavior of family member. -----
20 ----- Change in residence. -----
63 ----- Detention in jail or other institution. -----
11 ----- Minor violations of the law (traffic tickets,

jaywalking). -----

39 ----- Major business readjustment (merger, reorganization,

bankruptcy). -----

50 ----- Marriage. -----
73 ----- Divorce. -----
65 ----- Separation from spouse. -----
28 ----- Outstanding personal achievement. -----
29 ----- Daughter or son leaving home (marriage, college). -----
45 ----- Retirement. -----
20 ----- Major change in working hours or conditions. -----
29 ----- Major change in responsibilities at work (promotion,

demotion). -----

47 ----- Being fired from work. -----
25 ----- Major change in living conditions (new home,

remodeling, deteriorating home or neighborhood). -----

26 ----- Spouse or partner beginning or ceasing to work. -----
31 ----- Taking out a major loan (mortgage, business loan). -----
17 ----- Taking out a smaller loan (car, TV, freezer). -----
30 ----- Foreclosure on a mortgage or loan. -----
13 ----- Vacation. -----
20 ----- Changing to a new school. -----
36 ----- Changing occupations. -----
26 ----- Beginning or ending schooling. -----
45 ----- Marital reconciliation with mate. -----
40 ----- Pregnancy. Total Score -----

Yoga Journal L.L.C.

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By Jennifer Barrett

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