7 Ways to Chill Out and Recharge
Written by Peter Jaret for Reader’s Digest, February 2004
IF THE PACE OF LIFE threatens to spin out of control, Shelley Wahle does more than slow down. She stops completely. “I’ll close my eyes and take a few good long, deep breaths. A minute or two is often all it takes to calm down.” Wahle prepares medical reports for doctors – a job with tight deadlines – so she has to manage stress of suffer. But the 53-year-old really began to appreciate the power of stress relief after a nasty car accident left her struggling with back pain and emotional trauma. She went to the Stress Management Center of Marin in California, where she learned some simple techniques. The turnaround in her health and mood was so dramatic that her husband and two of their kids have followed her lead.
With problems small or large, finding a quiet oasis from stress not only preserves sanity, but also can be a lifesaver. Constant stress can harm the heart and even promote clogged arteries. New findings show it can cause a surge of stress hormones in the blood stream that can weaken the body’s immune defenses, making us more susceptible to infections like colds and flu. Everything from heartburn and cold sores to asthma and cancer are linked to high stress levels – they can even exacerbate memory loss as we age.
But relax. There are proven ways to quell stress. At West Virginia University, scientists taught 59 adults a meditative approach to stress management. Afterward the volunteers not only felt less anxious, but also reported fewer stress symptoms, such as headaches. When students at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, learned easy ways to defuse pressure, they had fewer sick days and faster recoveries from colds. And a study at the University of Miami found that HIV-positive patients practicing stress reduction could boost the number of immune cells circulating in their bloodstream.
You don’t need to turn your life upside down to tame stress, says psychologist Frederic Luskin, a researcher at Stanford University. “A lot of people say they’re too busy to stop and deal with stress. But things you can do anywhere, and that don’t have to take more than a few minutes, can stop the stress response before it goes out of control. The truth is, by learning to calm down, you can actually feel less busy.”
Try a different one of these techniques each day this coming week. Some will work better than others. What’s more important is finding two or three you can turn to whenever your stress meter climbs.
Here’s How: At least once during the day, take five or ten minutes to sit quietly and do nothing. Focus on the sounds around you, your emotions and any tension in your neck, shoulders, arms, chests, etc.
“IT’S ONE OF THE HARDEST things for many people to do,” says Robin Gueth, founder and director of the Stress Management Center of Marin. “We’re so used to thinking of our worth in terms of what we get done. Doing nothing can be a real struggle.”
Just sitting quietly slows the heart rate and reduces blood pressure, countering two of the most obvious effects of stress. It can also change your perspective and increase your sense of control over events. “Studies show that the most stressful situations are things we can’t control,” says psychologist James Carmody, research director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. “We can’t change the past. We can’t predict the future. The only thing any of us can control is the present moment,” he explains. “When people in our program practice this technique, they regain a sense of control – and ease stress.”
Laugh Out Loud
Here’s How: Keep something handy that makes you laugh. It could be a collection of your favorite comic strips or a funny voice mail from, say, your child or a friend. You could even take a few moments to think about watching your favorite television comedy. Turn to this every so often during your day.
One of the most effective stress-busters occur nightly, says researcher Lee Berk – when many people turn on their favorite comedy show at the end of a long day. Berk’s studies at Loma Linca University School of Public Health in California have shown that a good laugh reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine and boosts immunity. What’s more, the beneficial effects of a good belly laugh last up to 24 hours.
Even looking forward to laughing calms people. In results reported in 2002, Berk and his colleagues found that telling volunteers they would participate in an experiment that involved watching a funny video created a more positive mood and lowered their stress level on the spot.
Here’s How: When you face a daunting task, play soothing music – be it classical, country or jazz. At work you can use the CD drive on your computer to keep the music at the ready.
In a study at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, two groups of students were told to prepare an oral presentation. Some worked in silence; others listened to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major.” Stress caused the silent workers’ blood pressure and heart rates to climb. Not so the volunteers in the musical group, whose measurements remained steadier. They also reported feeling much less stress.
Is there music you shouldn’t listen to? “A lot of people find classical music most relaxing, but not everyone,” says psychologist Elise Labbe, who has been testing the calming effects of music on expreiments at the University of South Alabama. “Our volunteers select everything from concertos to country music. Whatever music feels most calming to you is the one that’s most likely to help ease stress.”
Here’s How: Focus on someone or something you care deeply for about for anywhere from 15 seconds to five minutes. Or picture a scene from a peaceful vacation. A phrase that makes you feel positive about yourself and the world can also work.
It sounds like advice from a greeting card, but thinking happy, calming thoughts can counteract the physiological changes that occur when we’re under stress. “A lot of the stress we experience comes from negative emotions we carry around with us – grudges, anger, hurt,” says Luskin, who studies the healing power of forgiveness (he’s also the author of the book Forgive for Good). “Just thinking about someone you’re angry with – a boss who’s a jerk, or a friend who hurt your feelings – can cause damaging stress hormones to flood the system. Thinking of people and things you love can have the opposite effect.”
Hit the Road
Here’s How: Get up from your desk, the couch – wherever you may be – and take a ten-minute walk.
Most people have an intuitive sense that walking helps calm them down. Now scientists are finding proof. In a 2002 investigation by the Standford University School of Medicine, researchers looked at people who were taking care of relatives with dementia – as stressful a situation as almost any of us will face. Those who began walking four times a week, the scientists found, reported feeling less distressed and sleeping better. Tests showed that their blood pressure was also more likely to hold steady when they were under stress.
Don’t have half an hour to spare? Don’t sweat it. Taking five- or ten-minute walks whenever you’re under pressure may be just as effective. “Our research suggests that the best strategy is to take a few minutes – or even a few moments – to calm down whenever stress levels start to climb,” says Luskin.
Here’s How: For five minutes, slow your breathing down to about six deep-belly breaths a minute. In other words, inhale for about five seconds, exhale for about five.
WE TEND TO TAKE quick, shallow breaths, especially when we’re feeling tense. Taking a few deep breathes forces you to stretch your shoulders and loosen up tight muscles.
Slow breathing has other unexpected benefits, according to an international study from 2001. Researchers found that when people practice yoga or recite a prayer, their breathing slows to the five-seconds-in, five-seconds-out rhythm, which, it turns out, matches a ten-second cycle fluctuation that naturally occurs in blood pressure. By synchronizing breathing to these underlying cardiovascular rhythms, people not only feel calmer, but may also improve the health of their cardiovascular systems.
If your day is full of small hassles and frustrations, Gueth recommends putting a dot of Liquid Paper on your wristwatch or the clock on your desk. “Every time you see that white dot,” she says, “take two or three long, deep breaths. You’ll be amazed how quickly it calms you down.”
Here’s How: Right before bed, and after the alarm goes off in the morning, take five minutes to relax your entire body. Start by tensing your toes; then consciously relax them Move on to the muscles in your feet, and then your calves, upper legs, buttocks, moving upward until you end by scrunching up and then relaxing the muscles in your face.
IF YOU START YOUR DAY feeling tense, chances are you’ll feel tense all day, says stress expert Gueth. If you take your troubles to bed with you, they’re likely to disrupt your sleep. And that can mean even more tension. People deprived of sleep, research shows, experience increased stress hormone levels. Gueth’s advice: Begin and end each day by taking a minute or two to consciously relax.
One effective approach is called progressive relaxation, the technique described above. In a 2002 study at the University of Southern Mississippi, 46 volunteers who were taught progressive relaxation experienced a significant dip in heart rates, perceived stress and levels of cortisol.
“Too much of my day is spent running around,” says Shelley Wahle. “I don’t want to start it that way. So I take five minutes before the craziness starts to quiet my mind. It’s not always easy. But once it’s part of your routine, you don’t feel right without it.”
If you have any questions or comments, please email Robin.
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